Hearts That Burn

Good morning friends, this Sunday morning or whenever you are tuning in! My name is Cate Nelson, she/her. I lived in Cambridge and worked and worshiped at Reservoir Church for a number of years, and it is a great joy to be back with you all today. 

For those of us that haven’t met, or for folks I haven’t seen in a while, here are some things that I’m enjoying this morning…

This morning we are extending the theme of Fire one more week. Today is a coda to last week’s Easter sermon where Pastor Steve reflected on the story of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to two of his followers along the road to Emmaus. We are spending another week with this story — to expand and stretch it, before Reservoir begins its new series next week on the Wisdom Literature. 

There will be a few moments to have some reflection to check in. 

Grab a match or lighter and candle!

Let’s revisit the scripture we read together last week, as we sink deeper in it today.

This story picks up on the Sunday afternoon after Jesus’ crucifixion…

Luke 24 13:18, 25:32

13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,

14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,

16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.

18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 

He goes on to tell a long story of the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion, how brokenhearted and confused their community is… and how maybe he isn’t in the tomb any more and that angels said he is alive… 

Jesus responds:

“Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!

26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.

29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.

31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight.

32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

Let me pray for us as we begin.

The Fellowship of the Burning Hearts

When I was 19, I was interning at a Christian ministry, and part of the internship involved a group Bible study with my fellow interns. It was a three month program, and we had regular classes where we would explore stories and themes of scripture together. In one of our first meetings, our lead teacher took stock of our group and with all this affection in his eyes and conviction in his voice, looked at us and said,

“I’m calling you the Fellowship of the Burning Hearts.” 

He was referencing this passage we just read, where these two men, reflecting on their walk with a person they realize was Jesus, say,

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 

I for one looooooved this name. I wasn’t a Lord of the Rings fan at that stage of my life, but there was something in this name about a merry-band-of-motley-travelers that I adored, as well as the notion we might just find our hearts burning in love for Jesus throughout our experience together. The Fellowship of the Burning Hearts. 

Let’s return to our scripture for a minute. A couple things caught my attention about the burning hearts in our reading today. First:

  • They recognize their burning hearts after the fact. It’s once they’ve recognized him, after he leaves, that they say, “were not our hearts burning within us as he unfolded to us the scriptures…” 
  • Even if they are moved by Jesus’ words, they recognize him in his actions

    : “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…”

Word and action — their hearts know something as they listen. But they understand something when they see him, when they eat together and he breaks the break — this is Jesus, they say. And that was Jesus, as they see in retrospect that their hearts were alive in a whole new way as they listened to him unfold the story of himself.

When has your heart last been burning?

Can we remember too when our hearts burned within us?

A couple things come to mind for me: 

  • I was at a gathering a few weeks ago, where we all took turns sharing that if we only had one scripture to revisit for the rest of our lives — it would be enough. Just one passage, one chapter, a handful of verses. And as this group spent time going around the circle, reading a passage aloud and saying what it meant to them, and why those words would be enough for a lifetime — I found my heart so tender, so gently glowing with how precious these testimonies, these stories were. 
    • Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty….You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day…

    • In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.. and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.

    • You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 

    • Write the vision; make it plain on tablets. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end and does not lie.

These words filled our room, woven together with stories of mothers’ wisdom and prayers and family dinners, words that sustained people in moments of loneliness, darkness and tragedy… my heart swelled as I listened to these passages that would be enough for the group I was gathered with. For a kid who encountered a good deal of Bible-thumping along the way and sometimes has a spotty relationship with these texts, I was deeply aware that here in this room, as people were unfolding the scriptures to each other, I was in the presence of a

Word that was living and active (Hebrews 4:12).

This is Jesus. My heart burned with love for these people and love for Jesus. 

  • Leaving a boring meeting  — the warmth in my heart from connection afterwards
  • Heart burning from the things in the world we care most about — with rage, with hope

Practice: scan your last few weeks. Was there a time where your heart was burning? Maybe in a moment of connection with God? Maybe in a moment of connection with others? Maybe in awe of a sight in nature, like spring unfolding on the red buds…. Light a candle, remembering your burning heart… giving thanks for that fire within you, perhaps even recognizing Jesus’ presence was in that moment of a burning heart…

Finding our own fellowship this morning of our burning hearts…

Letting this flame burn during our service, as a mark of our fellowship together today. 

Soft Hearts, Burning Hearts

Why this focus on our burning hearts? 

Because the reality is there is so much else that presses upon our hearts…

  • 876 search results for “heart” in the Hebrew Bible and Christian Testament….

Some of these “heart” results yield words like gladness and rejoicing… and for sure, it is a wonder when we find our hearts tender, joyful, fiery. Quiet joy of contentment or delighted joy are in our own Disney song, dancing among the flowers in awe of the world with little bunnies hopping around us. Goodness knows I love when this is what my heart is like. 

The reality is, life piles up… and with that, troubles, the disillusionment. 

As it turns out, a whole lot more of the search results of these ‘heart” words are things like troubled, broken, hardened. Which really resonates. 

God is well aware of all that goes on in our hearts, how tough it can be… broken hearted, our hearts are troubled, things can be so much. Last week, Steve talked about how life feels so cataclysmic, both in the world and in our own individual lives. The breaking. The aching, the falling apart. All that is unbearable. 

I told you at the beginning of my Fellowship of the Burning Hearts — well this place where I interned has been spectacularly, painfully, catastrophically crumbling in recent months. Heart breaking abuse from a trusted and admired leader leaving people confused, angry, betrayed not to mention leaving some deeply harmed. This place where my heart once burned, now it is breaking, and has left my heart deeply troubled.

  • They stood still, looking sad. How very relatable, this may be one of my new favorite scriptures. And even more, how easy it would have been to say, we are too sad to talk to you — they are after all overcome with grief. Of all the days to have an excuse to say to a stranger, “I’m sorry, I don’t have it in me today, I’ve suffered a great personal loss…” it is this day. But they make a choice to invite him in, and they make a choice to keep walking…

How do we keep moving… to keep walking this road to Emmaus with our grief, our troubles? How do we not stay still in our own sadness, at least not for too long?

I was talking on the phone with a friend who was lovingly listening to me share my litany of heart-sorrows — the mounting pile of troubles and heartbreak. I finished my lament and she wanted to pray for me.

“I am putting my hand on my heart, imagining that Jesus is putting his hand on your heart…”

The tenderness of this brought tears to my eyes as she prayed with love for my troubled heart.

There is a famous scripture in the Hebrew Bible, God tells the Hebrew people:

Ezekiel 36:26

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” 

This, too, is spoken to a community – just as the burning hearts happen in the context of two followers of Jesus in grieving fellowship along the road. Our burning hearts, our fleshy hearts, are found with Jesus and in the company of others.  

“A new heart I will give you, I will take the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

The truth is, stone can’t burn… a heart of stone cannot burn. So part of the practice of being a people with burning hearts is to be a people of soft hearts… fleshy hearts. Heart of stone for heart of flesh. Can we keep bringing our troubled hearts, our broken hearts into the presence of God and the ones we trust, to say things out loud and to ask for help that our hearts might not calcify? That they may stay fleshy that they can burn with all that makes them alive?

And if our hearts are hard, if they are rocky, may they at least be charcoal, or some other combustible rock that, in due time, can crumble and and burn. And saving that, we do have a God who miraculously can take the hardest places of our hearts and give us a heart of flesh.

Practice: I want to invite you into a moment of reflection, much like my friend invited me into when she prayed for me. If you’d like, place your hand over your heart. Maybe it is a moment to be loving towards yourself. Maybe you imagine it is Jesus’ hand on your heart, close to you in all that troubles or breaks your heart. 

And with your eyes closed or softly landing, take a few breaths just like this, naming before God the things that might hurt so much — or cause you so much worry — or feel like they will never ease. Maybe it’s one thing, maybe it’s a litany of things. Allow yourself to feel Jesus’ love and nearness to the parts of your heart that are troubled, breaking, or aching. 

Can we practice keeping our heart soft and fleshy — not by ignoring the things that hurt, not by trying to solve them on our own, but giving them back to God. This may be pain that we feel in our own lives, pain we see in the world around us… can we keep our hearts fleshy by letting Jesus’ love press upon our hearts — that our hearts may not calcify. 

Maybe we have done this a million times… can we do it once again today. Because the reality is that this is a form a repentance — a form of returning to Jesus again — to say, here it is, my broken heart, my hard heart, my troubled heart… I don’t want to simply stand still and look sad, at least not for too long. I want to bring this into the light, the light of your love, the light of the fellowship of those whom I trust, if only to say, please help. 


Jesus, hold.

Jesus, heal. 

How is Your Heart?

I want to end with one final question. How is your heart? 

It’s the question we’ve been asking all morning long… 

This heart — however you name it, however it feels — can we bless it, just as it is… 

James Baldwin makes a big claim in his book, The Fire Next Time:

“If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving.” 

I want to invite us to hold these candles up together (or finger candles) — imagining our friends, our online church gathered together today… let us bless one another…  in this fellowship of beautiful, troubled, fleshy, burning hearts — that as our hearts would be larger, freer, more loving as we encounter Jesus along the way. As he presses his hand against our hearts. As his words and love cause our hearts to burn once again. May this be our blessing to one another today, as we blow out our candles, as the smoke extends the blessing of fire to one another. 

Let me pray for us. 

Jesus, our risen God who walks with us along the way, would our encounters with you leave our hearts burning — larger, freer, and more loving. 

I give thanks for this fellowship of sacred hearts here in this online church today — burning, hurting, full of the very same stuff as the galaxies. We love you Jesus and are grateful for all the ways you come close to us with your love. 

Friends, may the blessing of God, the God of our burning hearts, be with you as you go. 

Coming and Going

Good morning, my name is Willie Barnett and I’m a pastor at Great Road Church out in Acton, MA. Pastor Steve has become a dear friend over the past two years. And you may not know this, but this church, Reservoir, has been an inspiration and guide for us as our own community has been on a journey to becoming a more inclusive and welcoming community. So I’m really honored to be with you all this morning. Thank you for being YOU!

Today I’d like to read a snippet of scripture – a somewhat troubling text – from

Genesis chapter 16, starting with verse 6 (New International Version):

6 “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

7 The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur.

8 And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Now skipping down to verse 13:

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” 

I just returned from a two-week trip to Kenya, which was really special because my Dad has served with the same missionary agency in East Africa almost my entire life, which is the same agency my grandparents served for their entire lives, and the same one my great-grandparents served for their entire lives. There’s been Barnetts serving with this one group in East Africa since 1907.

Which means LOYALTY is in my DNA. Commitment. Faithfulness. You stick to things.

And that’s not just a Barnett thing. It’s a Christian thing, right?

God’s love is a COVENANT love. Even when we’re unfaithful and disloyal, God sticks with us. God promises to never leave us nor forsake us. That’s what Jesus embodies.

So as followers of Jesus, we should love like Jesus – with a LOYAL love, KEEPING promises, STICKING TO our commitments. 

Churches love to celebrate LOYALTY and COMMITMENTS. I was recently at a wedding where two friends made promises to love one another, stick to one another – and everyone applauded, tears were streaming down our faces.

But do you know what churches rarely celebrate, or even talk about? LEAVING. Or, in Hagar’s words, “running away.” 

Leaving has always been hard for me to acknowledge or talk about. 

Yes, when we hit adulthood, we often leave home. Or sometimes God calls missionaries to leave the comforts of home. But for me, more often than not, leaving doesn’t feel loyal. 

Many years ago, my wife Becky and I co-pastored a church fresh out of seminary. And the mountain of relational, cultural, financial, and emotional problems we faced there was enormous and overwhelming! I’ll never forget the day a pastor-mentor friend of ours paid us a visit. For over an hour, he listened to us vent about all the insurmountable challenges. After all our venting, he paused and said,

“Why don’t you just leave?”

I was shocked by the suggestion. In the two intense years we had spent in the trenches working so hard to be faithful, I hadn’t once thought leaving was an option. I’m a Barnett – we need to stick with something for at least 100 years before we can consider leaving!

Because like Jesus, I’m loyal. And loyal people don’t leave. They stick with it.

Leaving is failure. Leaving is giving up. And faithful people don’t give up. 

Especially when it comes to churches and relationships. When it involves God-appointed places and God-blessed people. 

Anyone feel what I’m talking about?

Anyone know that voice in your heart and head?

‘Loyal people don’t leave. Leaving doesn’t honor a covenant-making, promise-keeping God. Leaving is failure.’ 

Some of you have been left. You know how painful it is when someone stops showing up, when someone gives up on you, when someone stops keeping their promise. You know that pain and you never want to inflict that pain on someone else. 

I know this is a sensitive subject but today I want to talk about and challenge the notion that just because you arrived somewhere – maybe a church, a relationship, a ministry, a vocation, a job – that feels like it has God’s stamp of approval on it does NOT mean you’re never allowed to leave that place, that relationship. 

Loyalty to God does NOT mean leaving is never an option.  

Now I can hear the voice of my parents saying,

‘Willie, we live in a rootless generation that’s cynical about promises, and you want to talk about leaving?

Well, here’s my reasoning: because the church for so long has never talked about WHEN to leave, HOW to leave, IF God allows leaving – because we’ve lacked a theology of departure – so many people have stayed and suffered in harmful places to the point where they feel like the only choice left is to LEAVE God behind. 

It’s taken me awhile, but I’ve come to believe that sometimes God calls us to leave. Sometimes leaving is what loyalty to God looks like. 

People leave relationships, friendships, marriages, churches, jobs, schools, and commitments all the time for not-so-great reasons. I’m not trying to baptize or endorse every choice to leave by any means. I’m simply saying that SOMETIMES God calls us to leave. 

I’ve always loved the 23rd Psalm. It says the Lord

“guides me along right paths for his name’s sake.”

I noticed recently that it simply says “right paths” – not a single path, or the same path we’ve always been on. 

If you read the whole Psalm, you know those paths may lead THROUGH some dark valleys but, it’s clear they’re meant to lead us TO restoration, renewal, goodness and love.

So maybe God doesn’t always keep us in the same place, the same pasture, on the same path. God doesn’t always keep us in the same church, same relationships, same town, same job, same friendships, same vocation. Rather Jesus guides both our coming AND GOING, both our arriving and OUR LEAVING, all part of a journey to lead us deeper into an experience of the fullness of his life and love. 

But WHY and WHEN would God ever want us to leave a place, a relationship, a community, especially one God that has brought us to? 

That’s a BIG question, and there’s just one approach to that question I want to focus on today. 

Another one of my favorite Psalms is

Psalm 121. Verse 7 and 8

7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
    [the Lord] will watch over your life;

8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
    both now and forevermore.

This affirmation – that the Lord “watches over” and guides BOTH your coming AND GOING – comes in the context of God’s promise to “keep you from ALL HARM.”

You see, God may bring us to an appointed place, time, or relationship. God’s blessing might be on that. BUT sometimes that place, that relationship, can transform into a place of HARM. And then we need to go.

We see this in the scripture I read earlier. We already know that Abraham and Sarah are God’s chosen people. This is a family, a couple, that God has chosen, blessed, and called to be a blessing to others. 

And this isn’t just about Abraham and Sarah – they bring their entire extended household, their relatives and servants all travel with them on this journey of faith. 

But sometimes God’s people who are blessed to be a blessing become the opposite. 

Worried that God’s blessing won’t work out, Abraham and Sarah let fear control their actions. Instead of trusting that God would provide a child, they try to control things and take matters into their own hands. Sarah forces Hagar, an enslaved Egyptian, to become another wife to Abraham and to sleep with him. There’s no mention of consent or choice. When Hagar gets pregnant and realizes Sarah is just using her, she naturally starts to grow resentment towards Sarah. 

Rather than care for Hagar by protecting her and blessing her and her future child as a member of his household, as one he is obligated to care for, Abraham views Hagar as a disposable nuisance making his first wife unhappy. 

He absolves himself of responsibility for Hagar. And so Sarah begins to mistreat her. Another word for this is abuse.

Do you see what’s happened?

The family whom God blessed to be a blessing to all nations is abusing, mistreating, harming a member of their own household.

It’s maybe the first, but is certainly not the last time that pattern happens among God’s people. 

Perhaps some of you know what that feels like. People you trusted to bless you and protect you harmed and hurt you instead. If that’s you, maybe just take a moment to breathe. 

And so what does Hagar do?

Even though as an enslaved person and a woman she has no viable way to live on her own in that culture, no other household to flee to, nowhere else to go, she LEAVES.

She goes. She flees. She runs in the opposite direction.  

She chooses her INTEGRITY as a person over her IDENTITY as a “loyal” servant. She runs in the direction of DIGNITY.

Imagine for a moment what a difficult decision that was to make. Leaving her employer and provider. Leaving the people she depends on. Leaving the people whom God had chosen. The only people in the story so far that God has shown up for IS Abraham and Sarah – and Hagar is leaving them. It probably felt like she was leaving God.  

YET she hits the road. She flees TO the desert, the wilderness where she has nothing and no one but at least she is free FROM harm. 

And what happens?

“The angel of the Lord FOUND Hagar near a spring in the desert.”

God asks,

“Hagar… where have you come from, and where are you going?”

The God who promises to keep us from all harm, who watches over your life, watches over your coming and going SEES HER, FINDS HER, and MEETS HER in the wilderness!

If and when YOU flee harm being done by God’s people, if and when YOU choose integrity over a specific identity and role, you are not leaving God behind, because GOD goes with you. 

God watches over YOUR life, over both your coming AND GOING. 

And God meets us in the wilderness. 

There’s a member of our church community in Acton named Joyce. Many years ago she found herself in a similar situation. She’s given me permission to share this part of her story. Her Christian husband – who had promised love to her and she had promised to love faithfully – was mistreating her.

But it wasn’t something her church back then knew how to talk about. They knew how to call you to loyalty, but the idea of leaving was shrouded in shame. But her integrity and safety as a person was more important than her identity as a ‘good Christian wife’, a ‘good church member.’ Joyce had to flee from harm – which first meant getting a restraining order from her husband. And then separating from him, which all felt like running into a wilderness.

God’s people didn’t “see” her, didn’t know how to support her. Her husband wasn’t providing for her or caring for her. She was on her own spiritually, emotionally, financially – needing to find a way to provide for herself and her two young girls. She was in the wilderness.

And there, in that place, without looking for it, her path crossed with another woman from the same church community who also had a restraining order from her husband. And then she met another woman in those circumstances. And another. And another!

Five women, all from the same church, all fleeing into this wilderness space, through God’s divine appointment miraculously found one another. And they each realized,

‘I’m not alone. I don’t need to travel this journey alone.’

And they committed to walking their journey together. To becoming a safe space where they could each be heard, respected, protected, cared for, encouraged, and empowered to make loving and good life-choices. 

They called themselves HAGAR’S SISTERS because, like Hagar, when they fled from harm into the wilderness, God saw them, God found them, and God provided a community that gave them hope and healing.

And those relationships birthed a ministry. And for more than 15 years, the ministry of Hagar’s Sisters has been meeting woman after woman, hundreds upon hundreds of people, in the wilderness as they flee from harm, embodying the message that

‘there’s a God who sees you. You’re not alone. There’s a path to hope and healing.’  

God meets us in the wilderness.

But Hagar’s story can also be difficult to understand. God meets her, but then – in her situation – God tells her to go back to Sarah. Part of the reason for that is because, in that world, there were no shelters. There weren’t any other economic options for a woman. Hagar couldn’t get a job and become a woman of independent means. In that ancient world, women were completely dependent upon the provision of male head of household. 

And that’s where we need to notice that God doesn’t send her back to the SAME situation. Instead, God says, ‘you will give birth to a son. And that son will have descendants too numerous to count!’ In other words, just like Abraham and Sarah will be blessed with a great household, YOU TOO – Hagar – will be blessed with your OWN household! Imagine that? An enslaved woman living in a foreign nation will become the MOTHER of her OWN great household!

In THAT context, that would be amazingly good news. 

It also means that Hagar would not have to live dependent upon Abraham forever, but could eventually live freely as a part of her son Ishmael’s household. 

But a few chapters later, before that reality can mature, Abraham and Sarah now send Hagar and her young son away out in the wilderness, on their own. Ishmael is still in diapers.

The text literally says she wanders in the desert. Baby Ishmael is sobbing, Hagar is sobbing… but AGAIN God meets them there. We read this in

Genesis 21:

17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 

18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.

21 While he was living in the Desert…, his mother (found) a wife for him from Egypt.

When we flee from harm into the wilderness, OR when we’re exiled and sent into deserted places against our will, God not only sees us there, God can provide refreshment and a future! 

When we’re in a harmful place, it can feel so scary to leave… because we can feel like we’re leaving God, or feel like we’re failing, or we can be told we’re irrational and ungrateful. Or some of you have been left, it wasn’t your choice… and here you are in the wilderness, a place you didn’t want to be. It can feel scary because we might not know what comes next. But the story of Hagar is that God meets us there and can give us a new pasture to thrive, new relationships, a future that might be fuller and more life-giving than anything we had experienced before! 

Did you know the first person in all of Scripture to name God is Hagar?

A young woman LEAVING God’s chosen people because she’s experiencing abuse IS the first person to give the almighty God a name! 

What should that tell us about how we do theology?

Genesis 16:13

“She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’”

And you know, she SAW God in the wilderness… precisely when she had the COURAGE to leave, to flee from harm. 

I was surprised when our friend Peter first suggested we could choose to leave our church. And we weren’t being mistreated or abused in that context. But what Peter was helping us see is that you and I always have CHOICES. We have agency. So with him and the encouragement of others, we did set boundaries. We said,

‘if the church chooses path A or path B, we can stay in this relationship. We can continue to be here. But if you choose path C, well, that’s opposite to why we came here to serve, to what we originally agreed to, and that violates our sense of integrity. And so we will choose integrity and leave if that happens.’ 

And that’s what happened. They chose path C, and we left. 

And I was angry. I was disappointed. I was hurt. I felt like I had failed. I felt like I let God down. I felt like maybe something was wrong with me. I was in the spiritual wilderness. I had lost my identity as ‘pastor.’ I had trust issues. I didn’t know if I could serve in a church again, because I might get hurt and let down again. 

But God saw me there… and provided.

Unexpectedly, the opportunity opened for me to serve at a Taiwanese-American church, something I never imagined for my life. 

And there I experienced more life and joy in ministry than I had before… and I eventually left that place because there was a new opportunity with a different kind of joy and life for me.

The slow lesson I’m learning is that loyalty to God sometimes means leaving one place – maybe because that place has become harmful, or maybe because integrity demands it, or maybe because God has a surprise for you – leaving one place so God can take you to a new place where there’s even GREATER joy and life. 

Or in the words of Taylor Swift, from her song ‘it’s time to go’ –

Sometimes giving up is the strong thing

Sometimes to run is the brave thing

Sometimes walking out is the one thing

That will find you the right thing

Now, the point of this message is not that if you’re BORED in your marriage, or FRUSTRATED in a friendship, or ANNOYED by long sermons at your church, you should just PEACE OUT. ALL relationships have challenges; ALL communities have certain tensions to bear and work through with love, patience, kindness, and forgiveness!

When a woman is experiencing intimate partner abuse and comes to Hagar’s Sisters, they actually don’t tell you whether to seek a divorce or not. 

They communicate that God’s desire is to keep you from harm. That God wants you to be in safe, loving relationships. That’s the space God is calling you to! And they invite women to choose integrity. And that might mean leaving. Sometimes, if the spouse catches the vision, that means seeking transformation within a relationship. Going to a NEW WAY of relating WITHIN an EXISTING relationship. 

The well-known marriage counselor Esther Perel once said,

Most people are going to have two or three marriages or committed relationships in their adult life. Some of us will have them with the same person.

What she’s getting at is that in ALL relationships, we need to keep GROWING. The invitation to LEAVE ONE kind of relationship and MOVE to a more life-giving kind of relationship isn’t just a question for those facing abuse – it’s a question for ALL healthy relationships. 

Becky and I have had several versions of our “marriage” within our 22-year-old marriage as we’ve LEFT certain patterns of relating, and gone at times into wilderness places, difficult places, tensive places, where we had to depend more on God and discover NEW patterns of relating. 

A healthy marriage, a healthy family system, a healthy church community, a healthy workplace isn’t static. It leaves old and hurtful patterns and looks for God to teach and provide new ways of being and relating. 

So my invitation for you today, for this summer, is to ask,

Is there something in your life that God is inviting you to leave? 

Maybe you’re experiencing abuse, or high levels of power and control in a relationship. If that’s the case, please reach out to Hagar’s Sisters or one of your pastors. God desires to keep you from harm, for you to be whole. Maybe you do need to leave a place of harm and seek a place of safety.

Or maybe you’re simply in a static place, or you feel tension in a certain situation, community, or relationship and you’re just stuck there. Instead of life to the full, it’s life-draining. What pattern or way of relating might you need to leave behind and what new pattern might you need to embrace?

Or maybe some new opportunities are arising in your life that God is inviting you to say ‘yes’ to. What might you need to first let go of, say ‘no’ to and lay down, in order to say ‘yes’ to this new thing?

Or maybe you’re in the wilderness today. And you feel alone. No one seems to get it. I just want you to know: God sees you and God can provide for you.

Let us pray.

The Kingdom of God Within

Luke 17:20-21

20 Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation;

21 nor will they say, [f]‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is [g]within you.”

Let me pray for us. 

Loving God, give us the grace to be in tune with you now. No matter where our hearts may be, no matter what’s on our minds, whether broken or scattered, or stubborn or indifferent, soften us through the power of your loving grace and mercy. We seek to create an empty space, a humbling space to hear truth, maybe through or maybe despite my words, that in the hearts and minds of each of us, you speak to us more loudly and clearly than anything I can arouse. Infuse in us the Holy Spirit, our teacher, our guide, who leads us and comforts us no matter the perils. Be with us now we pray and reveal to us your kingdom. Amen. 

I recently watched a film called My Octopus Teacher on Netflix. It was on the critically acclaimed list, so it must be good, and lately I am drawn to the sea, the ocean, the nature of all things that makes me feel small. It’s a documentary about a man, amidst a place of crisis and feeling stuck in life, decides to go back to one of his fondest childhood activities, diving underwater. There he encounters an octopus and from then on decides to go back to that same diving spot day after day, every day. He ends up going for more than 300 days, and the film captures that journey. Oh it’s beautifully shot. Just the wondrous and enchanting place that is underwater. And an octopus is a fascinating creature. Did you know that with its eight legs, sometimes on the ocean floor, it lands two of its legs down and walks, looking like a lady in an extravagant ball gown strutting about? 

I’ve been on a social media break lately and this journey of the filmmaker Craig Foster, intrigued me. The desire to just go underwater. Away from all the problems of the world, away from the busyness, the stress, and the pressures of life. Just dive down deep, and be completely engulfed in silence. 

I think spirituality can have that draw sometimes. In that deep spiritual presence of God in the inner places of my thoughts. That’s one of the reasons that this text today has always had a special place in my heart and in my theology. Kingdom of God within. The Kingdom of God within me! Oh how I longed to know and experience that. I have been so comforted by the knowledge that the name of God in Hebrew are breath vowels, YWHW, too holy to speak, that the Jewish people used a whole another name, Adonai when speaking of God. This breath that hovered over the waters in creation. The Holy Spirit as breath and wind has always spoken to me 

But can I be real with you? I landed on this text with the desire to share this particular idea, that God is inside you. That you can access God right here in your breath, as you look deeply close to your inner being. I wanted to say,

“See! Even Jesus said, God is within you!”

However the spirit of God had other plans and brought me to another place that I need to share with you. It was humbling, as I read and researched the text, that it wasn’t taking me where I was planning to go with it, but also more wondrous and expansive than my own spiritual longings. 

Just like my own spiritual longings, I think the church has also had this obsession with finding and pinpointing to that thing. That thing, that love, that peace, that kingdom of God, that reign of God when all is well and everything is good. While I was trying to find it here, it’s in here!

(When the text clearly says, 

no one can say, “look the kingdom of God, see right here, it’s here!”), 

the church has often pointed to a literal heaven, specifically the afterlife. This apocalyptic language that has been central to American Christianity didn’t come out of thin air, but yes, it was very rooted in the biblical apocalyptic language that existed to describe and talk about God, or the reign of God. Some called it Kingdom of Heaven, some called it Kingdom of God, interchangeably, and yes it was trying to get at that thing, I believe, that we’re all seeking for. The Jewish tradition sometimes calls it Shalom. That state of peace, but not just nice peace, but justice, harmony, interconnectedness. And so actually the rest of today’s text, Jesus does go on using this similar apocalyptic language, talking about Noah’s flood, and Sodom’s rain of fire.

Jesus says in verse 34-37,

34 I tell you, in that night there will be two [j]men in one bed: the one will be taken and the other will be left.

35 Two women will be grinding together: the one will be taken and the other left.

36 [k]Two men will be in the field: the one will be taken and the other left.”

37 And they answered and said to Him, “Where, Lord?” So He said to them, “Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.””

Apocalyptic language was a genre. But, well,  it was based on reality. Reality that under Roman’s rule, complete destruction from the enemy was absolutely a possibility for them. That was their impending doom.. 

The notable new testament scholar N.T. Wright says this,

“The passage does not refer to an event in which natural or supernatural forces will devastate a town, a region, or the known world; rather like so many of Jesus’ warnings in Luke, it refers to the time when enemy armies will invade and wreak sudden destruction. The word that means ‘vultures’ is the same word as ‘eagles’ (ancient writers thought vultures were a kind of eagle), and there may be a cryptic reference here to the Roman legions, with the eagles as their imperial badge.”

It wasn’t about the “end times” but it was about a real current threat, speaking to the lived fears of the day. Something that they were worried about, a political, military issue of their time. And Jesus was speaking right to it, about it. 

A slice of Christian theology has come to pinpoint the kingdom of God as entering heaven or hell in the afterlife, understandably based on such apocalyptic literature. Many of you, probably most of you are too familiar with this, even if you are new to faith or didn’t grow up in the church. But if you did, maybe even more so, you’ve heard about the importance of being baptized or converting to Christianity so that you may go to heaven after you die.

Somewhere along the line, a helpful metaphor to describe the current issue of the day, became a literal place that drove people into shame or fear to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. I do think the metaphor CAN be helpful, in revealing the truth, but sometimes I feel like… I preach about once a month and every time I preach, I just want to say, “it’s a metaphor!” And metaphors are powerful but it can be unhelpful and sometimes even toxic and dangerous when taken literally. 

I was talking to a friend who’s left the church for a while. They said,

“why should I care? Who really knows what happens after you die? What matters to me is my life right now? Why is my life the state that it’s in right now and what does God think about that? Why isn’t he doing anything about it? He just wants to be worshiped?”

My heart was sad to hear about their life situation, and worse that they thought God didn’t care. I couldn’t just say,

“But God does care!”

because then what about their life, their current real struggles. I didn’t have an answer to that. So I just sat there, wondering too,

“how do we know that God cares about us, right now, our lives?” 

Do you ever wonder that? If God cares about you? If God cares about your specific situation? 

Thomas Merton in his book Contemplation in a World of Action, addresses the concerns of spiritual contemplation versus participation in the world. He critiqued the Catholic church for

“giving up on the world and retreating into the abstract” (Odell)

He says,

““Is it enough to wall the monk off in a little contemplative enclave and there allow him to ignore the problems and crises of the world, should he forget the way other men have struggle for a living and simply let his existence be justified by the fact that punctually recites the hours in choir, attend conventual Mass, strives for interior perfection and makes an honest effort to “live a life of prayer”?””

Merton’s legacy lies in a turning point for him, a turning from traditional monk endeavors, from asceticism to a holy active participation and integration in the world. Apparently this happened in Kentucky, there lays a plaque that marks this,

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”” 


This thinking goes against some Christian teachings I’ve heard. We’re only visitors here. This is not our home. Our real home is heaven, where God has prepared a palace for us. In fact, if we’re last here, we’ll be first there. It has pitted people against themselves, only caring about the spiritual realm rather than the place where “God themself became incarnate”. I think that’s compelling. If it was all spiritual, why did Jesus ACTUALLY come to earth, at a specific time and place. Couldn’t things just be fixed or compelled through some kind of magical powers. Why did Jesus care about the social structure of the day and spoke out against it? Why did Jesus embody a body at all? Why did Jesus literally heal people instead of telling them their pain will be no more in heaven when they die? I believe that a God that decided to not just wave their hands high up in the sky but decides to come, join, live in this world is a God that deeply deeply cares for this material world. This physical world. One who cares about the “sorrows and stupidities of the human condition”. 

The warning, “Behold, the kingdom of God is coming” isn’t, wasn’t what we think it means. You see things get lost in translation. Some languages have a much more nuance to things sometimes, that can be captured through a wide varied way of conjugating a verb. I experience this as an English as a Second Language speaker, I know, you probably think, wow her English is really good, and yes I worked hard to learn English because English is really hard. Learning a new language is really difficult because it’s not just speech, it’s ideas, it’s movement, it’s concept you are trying to understand.

For example in Korean, there are many ways to saying, “She’s coming over. You could say, “she’s on her way.” or “She’s about to come” or “She was about to come” which, you know the difference between the two sentences when the only difference is two letters. Or “She was coming” and then it connotes that maybe something else happened. 

When this text was translated,

“the Kingdom of God is within you.”

Turns out there are many different ways to translate this. Listen to variations. 

One could say, “Within you, within your hearts.” Or “Among you, in your midst.” Which is a HUGE difference because one is personal and individual, whereas the latter is PLURAL and COMMUNAL. And even not pinpoint-able but in the movement within you. Like the Kingdom of God is not here(person) or here (person) but here (the in-between them two). 

I have an old critical commentary of the Bible that my dad bought from a book dealer in Korea when he was in seminary. Its first print dates 1901. And it says that it wouldn’t have made sense for Jesus to say that it’s in your heart, because he was talking to the Pharisees, which he was always making the point that they were not getting the point.

Cyril of Alexandria, a writer from the 4th century, makes it mean,

“lies in your power to appropriate it.” 

The kingdom of God lies in your power to appropriate it. REALLY? N.T. Wright puts it similarly,

“The phrase (in your midst) is more active. It doesn’t just tell you where the kingdom is; it tells you that you’ve got to do something about it. It is ‘within your grasp’; it is confronting you with a decision…”

My seminary professor said, “the Kingdom of God is coming” is more like,

“The kingdom of God is right in front of your nose.”

And my translation would be,

“The kingdom of God is about to be all up in your face. What are you gonna do about it?” 

The kingdom of heaven is not up there, or after we die. The kingdom of heaven is right here and the question isn’t where it is but what are you going to do about it? 

The end of the film, My Octopus Teacher says this, and I’m not spoiling it for you, because it’s impossible for me to spoil the visual magnificence of the film by quoting it, but he closes by saying,

“What she taught me was to feel… that you’re part of this place, not a visitor. That’s a huge difference.”

This has implications not only to the social political problems of the day, but also for us these days to our environment, which I don’t have time to get into now. But the spirit of God, the reign of God includes you, your body, our earth, your problems, the octopus, the war, and everything in-between, all in our midst. How could that be? I don’t know. But that seems to be the invitation here, The kingdom of God lies in your power to appropriate it. Is that too close for comfort? Is that too much power in our hands instead of God or Jesus? That’s what Jesus seems to be saying…

I’ll leave you with another quote from Jesus, from John 14:12. He says,

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”

THEY WILL DO EVEN GREATER THINGS THAN THESE. You will do even greater things than Jesus! Do you believe that? I don’t know. Let’s pray about it. I don’t know, that’s the end of my talk. Let’s pray. 

God how can it be. What are humans that you are mindful of them? Human beings that you care for them? You have given us your spirit to be with us, and have charged us with your call. Help us to see and listen, and participate in the great wave of your power blowing over the waters of chaos. Oh Spirit, compel us to realize that we are co-creators, conduits of your kingdom here and now, on earth as we imagine it in “heaven”, may it be, let us be that. WE pray in the strong name of Jesus Christ Amen. 

Love Is…a Confession

Genesis 3:7-21

7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as God was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

11 And God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

“Cursed are you above all livestock

    and all wild animals!

You will crawl on your belly

    and you will eat dust

    all the days of your life.

15 And I will put enmity

    between you and the woman,

    and between your offspring[a] and hers;

he will crush[b] your head,

    and you will strike his heel.”

16 To the woman God said,

“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;

    with painful labor you will give birth to children.

Your desire will be for your husband,

    and he will rule over you.”

17 To Adam God said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;

    through painful toil you will eat food from it

    all the days of your life.

18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,

    and you will eat the plants of the field.

19 By the sweat of your brow

    you will eat your food

until you return to the ground,

    since from it you were taken;

for dust you are

    and to dust you will return.”

20 Adam[c] named his wife Eve,[d] because she would become the mother of all the living.

21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.


I sometimes really don’t like the subtitles they put on top of the different sections of the Bible chapters. This one I read just now, some have it titled, “The Fall” or “The First Sin and Its Punishment,” The editors of the Bible are presenting their understanding and theology, or the moral of the story to the reader. Its insistence and presumed authority doesn’t sit well with me, but then again I feel like that with most power and authority exercised this way. 

It’s like when my girl is playing. The other night she put on a variety of things on herself as a costume, a karate belt over one shoulder, my scarf on the other, a cape, one of my husband’s slippers on her leg and the other on her wrist. She twirled and said it was a show. And we sat and clapped saying, what a wonderful show! And I said, Jaga (that’s what I call her) is princess, because that’s what she’s been into, and she said, no! This is a “Jaga wears a weird costume show.” I said okay, Jaga wears a weird costume show wow! She handed me a piece of paper, and I said, oh is this the show notes? And she said, No! It’s a bonus card. Oh okay, thank you for the bonus card.

She hates it when you don’t listen to her directions when we’re playing. And when you listen, you find out what’s important to her. I pay attention to what and how she names, the animal, the activity, to find out how she understands the world. And honestly, it’s usually much more rich, beautiful, and fascinating than my cliches and norms. 

Our Kids Church curriculum uses a method called Godly Play, which names stories from the Bible that’s not only easier to understand for children but also in ways that are theologically appropriate. Godly Play names this Genesis 3 story as not the Fall, but “The Falling Apart: The falling apart and coming back together in a new way.” Now isn’t that a better title than “The First Sin and its Punishment?” I think so!

As a pastor, one of my jobs is translating things into today’s context, for our day to day lives. And the language sin and punishment was one way to explain and capture this relationship we have with God, that may have worked, and even worked well at one time, but I would say for me, today, it needs reworking. The title “The Fall,” this concept of things being right, and then when wronged, you fall from the graces, is trying to explain what’s happening. But what if, what if it wasn’t so hierarchical, where God is here, and you are supposed to be here, and when you sin you fall. What if, like the Godly Play title, it’s less about hierarchy and what’s right and wrong, but about relationship, the element of estrangement and turning away, the falling apart of love, and that it can be put back together in a new way. 

Today I want to talk about this, how to come back together in a new way. We’re in the series of talking about Love is…, and I titled it Love is a Confession. And I’m purposely using the “old” language, confession to try for us to go deeper into the word, get through some of the ways it has been used to coerce or control, and redefine it to find the truth of what it was trying to get at–it was never about just coming clean, but coming back. You don’t have to be clean, you just have to come back in a new way.

Understanding God through sin and confession has often been this way: you sin, you confess, and then you’re forgiven and right with God. There’s something about the act of confession that is true, but over the years, it became a ritual, and then a rule, and then just a thing you had to do. 

I think about the catholic tradition. I don’t know much except from movies and things, where you go into a little box and the priest listens from the other side and absolves you of your sin. And the concept of penance, which feels definitely archaic and foreign, even strange, that you should do something because of your guilt or shame. And at the same time, the process of moving from something wrong to something right, does seem like there needs to be some way to make it up. 

During the Reformation, the 16th century when some folks were trying to reform the catholic church, some of these traditions shifted to align with the ever progressing theology of the times. The sacrament of penance was done away with but there still needed to be some way that people could practice getting honest and real with God. So they came up with the corporate confession of sin, changing the “I confess” to “we confess.” And the underlying theology behind it was, not that you must confess in order to receive forgiveness but it became part of the liturgy, the work of the people, a kind of storytelling through declaration in worship. And this is where we got it right. [picture] Jesus is so lucky to have us.

You don’t come to receive worship, you exercise worship. You are doing the work. You are proclaiming and telling the story together. So an act in worship, like a prayer of confession, is less an act of transaction but a declaration, to say we confess boldly and safely because God’s grace and mercy is enough and abundant. By confessing our sins, we confess that God is safe, loving, and compassionate. 

Because if it is not safe, you should not confess. 

A while ago a person emailed me and the other pastors a confession. I’ve gotten their permission to share. Here’s what it said:

I am asking that you continue to keep me in your prayers as I try and gain control over my need to smoke marijuana as well as binge eating. I’ve turned to these unhealthy behaviors as a way to cope with my fears and anxiety.  

Although I know that God is with me during the good and bad times… I also found comfort with these unhealthy behaviors. It’s been my dirty little secret that I felt too embarrassed to talk about or ask for prayer. In order for me to continue this path of emotional and physical healing, it’s time to address these issues. 

God has been nudging my soul and telling me that it’s time to break away from these behaviors and it’s okay to talk about it to others. During this season of Advent I’ve been praying for full liberation from the things that are holding me back from finding my inner peace. This past Tuesday, I made a promise to myself that I was no longer going to smoke marijuana or binge eat. I’ve had an eating disorder since I was a little girl. In the past I have seeked help for this but when we went on lockdown last year, my eating disorder came back. 

Today was my second day of not smoking… I was really naive in thinking because I am a light smoker that my body would not crave it if I stopped… Well I was wrong. Today was really rough but I refuse to continue to allow this to have control over me. I am and will overcome this need to turn to marijuana. Not smoking has also helped with wanting to binge eat. I know that I can do this… It’s not going to be easy but it must be done! I can honestly say being back at Reservoir Church has definitely helped in SO many ways. So thank you for all your prayers as I continue this path of finding inner peace and a closer connection with God.

It was a big thing for this person to share. When you feel like you have a secret, it feels like that. And really, we humans, all the ways we lie, cheat, steal, gloat in pride, manipulate and so on. And all that we do to cover it because we feel bad about it only makes it worse sometimes. In fact, I would go as far as to say, often it’s not even the act itself that eats us, but the secrecy and the shame from the act.

That’s why I wanted to share Genesis 3 with you today, despite the gender problematic  language in the second creation story, as opposed to the first one, which pastor Ivy read from last week, “let us make humankind in our image.” You see, the Bible is okay with diversity, even two opposing accounts of the creation. And that is what we have. Please if you’ve never heard about this, it makes a world of difference to our faith to know this one fact.

We have two creation stories. And the Jewish texts were okay laying them right next to one another. Genesis 1 is the first creation account. And 2-3 is the second creation account. We know this because the stories are two completely different styles. In fact they have two different names for God. The first one called God Elohim, and the second calls it Yahweh, which is why the biblical scholars distinguish the two to be one from the Elohist tradition and Yahwist tradition: They come from two different traditions! 

And it just so happens that the Elohist captures the creation of human beings born out of a community, let us make humankind in our image, God created them, male and female. Whereas in the Yahwist tradition, man is created first and then the whole story about the rib and Eve, AND it includes this sin and fall story. 

Honestly I think the second creation story honestly is just someone, a man, trying to explain the reason behind patriarchy with things like, God talked to the man first, and how all this came about because he listened to his wife, which he shouldn’t have, which is why after the fall her desire will be for her husband, and he will rule over her. Yes, I agree with Yahwists that this is a result of a broken world and that there is a way toward renewed relationship that is sewn back in a new way. There’s more I can and want to say but I’m running out of time. 

I picked text because I have a different point than we should confess. This text doesn’t even have an apology or a confession. Look at the man and the woman, they both shift blame and make excuses. Can you relate? 

But look at what God is doing. Always look at that, in any Bible story, what is God doing? The first thing God does here is ask,

“Where are you?” 

God says,

“Where are you?” 

God is looking for you. And the things that follow, they can be seen as punishment,  but it has also served as stories that explain how things came to be like why snakes don’t have legs. But after that part, how does the story end? God elevates the man-made fig leaves to garments of skin and clothed them.

God looks for you and covers you. 

Where are you?

What have you done? 

There might be some consequences but more importantly, come here, put this on. Let me cover you. Let me protect you. 

This is the work of confession. Confession is a response to God’s love, not a prerequisite. It’s a proclamation of a God that loves you, cares for you, looks for you, wants to bring you back to make things new, and sews us back together with Godself. This is our confession, not what we have done wrong but who God is regardless. Our Confession is actually, not sin, but Love. 

Let me pray for us. 

God of Love who calls us back again and again. Call us back even now, even if we were to say the things that we’re most ashamed of right now, you lift up our chins with your loving hand and say, welcome home. Lead us back to you, no matter where we’ve been, that is what we confess God… Here I am. Deliver us, back to you we pray. Amen. 

Re-Membered: Thoughts on the Meaning of Communion and Salvation

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

A few weeks back, I mentioned the thing I remember most from when I started going to Sunday church services on the regular. It was the time once a month when we would take communion together, eating these tiny bits of stale-tasting crackers and drinking these mini-cups of juice that were supposed to represent the body and blood of Jesus Christ crucified.

We were told to confess our sins before communion. And what I loved was that after the whole thing, the pastor would say to us that if we confessed our sins, God was faithful and just to forgive all unrighteousness so that before a holy God, we stood totally free and in the clear.

I didn’t understand what all that meant, but I loved the words free and in the clear. Like a lot of teenagers, I didn’t feel free very often, but I did in this moment. I felt accepted, good enough, satisfied. I also had this highly attuned sense of guilt and shame (probably for some good reasons and a few bad reasons) but I loved this moment of being told to let it all go – that I was in the clear.

Looking back, though, what’s odd are all the things that were never said. I mean, as a 15-year-old, I had bigger problems than my moral guilt. Parts of me were doing fine, but parts of me were lonely and scared a lot of the time. And I carried pain and even trauma in my life that I had no idea how to talk about or what to do with.

Yet here at communion, at what represented to us Jesus’ table, what to do with our hurt wasn’t talked about at all. We were told how this table spoke to our sin, but to our hurt and loneliness – not at all.

That was the situation for me, whose life was pretty stable and privileged in a lot of ways. But what if I was taking communion in a church full of refugees, fleeing persecution or genocide? What if we were in a community trying to rebuild after a devastating war? What if the majority of my faith community suffered under dehumanizing racism or poverty or other indignities? How would this communion table of Jesus’ sin-forgiveness speak to us? Would this message of freedom from guilt be sufficient for our salvation?

I love communion. Some of what feel like my holiest moments in my time at Reservoir have been serving communion to children excited to be part of it, or to adults in tears, feeling the power of God’s inclusion and embrace.

I love that we worship with communion every week in our in-person services. I ache that for those of us worshipping and gathering online, we’ve done this so little the past year and a half. (And at least today we’ll change that, as we remember together with whatever bit of food and drink you have available. Feel free to grab something now real quick – it doesn’t have to be bread and wine or juice – any scrap of food, any bit of drink will do in a pinch.) 

But I’m aware that the whole thing can be kind of confusing. What’s happening in this moment of worship? What are we remembering and doing?

This has been a topic of discussion and even debate among followers of Jesus since people first started remembering Jesus together. So, I don’t pretend like I have the final word here. But as we get close to the end of our fall series on Jesus’ table, today I share my thoughts on what’s going on at Jesus’ communion table – way back at the first one we read about in the Bible, and especially at the table where churches remember Jesus today. I’ll share my belief on what’s mainly happening during communion, which in a lot of ways represents what I consider to be the primary aspects of the salvation God offers humanity in Christ as well.

The call, the purpose of a local church, is no less to be a place where liberation and healing begins. And the communion table is a place of liberation and healing for us all.

It has to do with this word “remember”, two different takes on that word.

Let’s start reading one of the four main passages in the Bible about Jesus’ table, the story of Jesus’ last supper with his students in the good news of Luke. It goes like this:

Luke 22:14-23 (Common English Bible)

14 When the time came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles joined him.

15 He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.

16 I tell you, I won’t eat it until it is fulfilled in God’s kingdom.”

17 After taking a cup and giving thanks, he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves.

18 I tell you that from now on I won’t drink from the fruit of the vine until God’s kingdom has come.”

19 After taking the bread and giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

20 In the same way, he took the cup after the meal and said, “This cup is the new covenant by my blood, which is poured out for you.

21 “But look! My betrayer is with me; his hand is on this table.

22 The Human One goes just as it has been determined. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays him.”

23 They began to argue among themselves about which of them it could possibly be who would do this.

First, at the communion table, we remember the death of Jesus, with its weird mix of tragedy and beauty. And we remember Jesus telling us we are forgiven, so that we can turn to more free and more just lives.

From the beginning, Jesus said this table was the start of a practice. He says to his students, and those of us to come in the future:

Do this in remembrance of me.

Jesus wanted to be remembered.

We remember Jesus’ closest friends falling asleep when he most needs their support. We remember how Jesus’ students forgot or ignored his teaching on non-violent peace-making, and tried to fight, until Jesus stops them. We remember how Jesus’ friends mostly abandon him, in one case betray him, right after sharing a meal at the table with him.

We remember that the most admired human in history was tortured and executed by the state. We remember that the human so many of us believe reveals the person of God to us was misunderstood, rejected, and killed.

We remember Jesus, and we remember the tragic folly of humanity, how whenever we see God, we’re liable to try to eliminate what we see.

We remember the beauty of this all too.

We see Jesus’ kindness toward an enemy who’s out to get him. We see his love and courage and grace under pressure. And I think we see what the self-giving, sacrificial love of God looks like. It’s beautiful.

There’s a phrase in the Orthodox Christian faith that beauty will save the world. And maybe if we kept remembering Jesus, the beauty of his love in the face of death would push us all to stop scapegoating. To stop bullying, to stop arming ourselves, to shut down cycles of blame and shame and revenge and violence. Maybe the beauty of love in the face of hate will save us still.

Part of the beauty of this we remember is God’s forgiveness of us expressed by Jesus too. It’s not the central theme of this Last Supper. Of the four principal passages on Jesus’ communion table in the New Testament, forgiveness is actually only mentioned in one.

Where Mark and Luke have Jesus sharing a cup of wine he calls the cup of the new covenant, Matthew adds that this new covenant includes the forgiveness of sins. Paul’s big passage in I Corinthians on communion doesn’t mention forgiveness at all.

So, forgiveness of sins isn’t the only or even the main thing we remember about Jesus, but it’s important still. Jesus proclaimed God’s forgiveness of sin throughout his ministry, and as he died on the cross, he also prayed:

Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.

And like most Christians, I read the “them” there as Jesus’ killers but as all of us too. God forgives us our sin – all the foolish and death-dealing and tragic ways we lose our way and hurt ourselves and one another and this whole world of ours. God recognizes that at least in part, we have no idea what we are doing. And God doesn’t want to hold it all against us. God doesn’t want payback or punishment. Have you ever noticed how many people who are blamed and shamed just get defensive and angry, or shrivel up in despair?

God doesn’t want that for God’s kids. God wants liberation and healing. God wants us to know the freedom of acceptance and a clear conscience, so we can live freely and make amends for the harm we’ve done – make it better – without fear of curse or rejection.

This forgiveness is an important part of the new deal with God Jesus inaugurates. That with God, we are never defined by our biggest mistake. We are not treated as the sum of our worst acts and biggest lacks. Before a holy and just and God, we are indeed loved and we are free.

So, I think it’s good to confess our sins to God when we take communion and even to do so daily in prayer. To say

God, this is what I’m sorry for.

People and communities that don’t confess sin are more likely to become smug, proud, violent, and entitled. They’re more likely to notice what’s wrong with everyone else, not themselves, and become embattled and embittered. In many ways, this is the drift of our world, certainly the drift of our culture. Confession of sin keeps us humble. And confession, and remembering we are forgiven, is a chance to find freedom and acceptance and to take the energy this brings to do better and make things right in the world.

So, confession and forgiveness are important things that are happening at the communion table. But as I said at the top, they are not the only thing.

At the communion table, a second thing is happening.

At the communion table, we remember Jesus, and the Spirit of Jesus also re-members us: puts us back together, heals us, reconnects us. 

Here’s what I mean.

When I was a teen, I needed forgiveness, but more than that, I needed to know that I wasn’t alone. That certain things that had happened to me were not my fault. And that life could get better. That God, love, people, faith could possibly help.

When I take communion now, sometimes I confess my sin, but sometimes I tell God about who and what has disappointed me, or at the ache I feel from my worries and my hurt and from all that’s wrong with the world.

There’s a Korean theologian whose work I love, who I’ve had the privilege of speaking with – he’s named Andrew Sung Park. And he writes a lot about what he calls han.

Han is the great burden of most of humanity. Not so much the ways we sin and hurt others, but the many ways that we have been hurt.

Han is a Korean word that describes “the depths of human suffering,” “the abysmal experience of pain.” It is the condition of the sinned against, the victim, the abandoned, the oppressed, the harmed. Han can be expressed actively in hatred and aggression, as the will to revenge. Or it is expressed passively, through “self-denigration, low self-esteem, self-withdrawal, resignation, and self-hatred.” It can be unconscious or conscious.

Han is me as a teenager, the abuse victim who’s too distressed over his experience to tell anyone.

Han is the shame of the constantly criticized. It is the fear of the threatened. Han is the ache of those who grieve. It’s the loss of the abandoned.

Han can be collective too – the resentment and anger or the despair and lamentation of the targets of racism or violence.

Han can even characterize collective experiences, as active racial resentment or passive racial lamentation. Even nature itself experiences han. We consider severely befouled landscapes or the state of animals in factory farms.

To people suffering from han, if you say: it’s OK, you’re forgiven, what kind of message is that? That the suffering and hurt was their fault, but God turns aside. No, the suffering and hurt was the fault of someone else, or of some broken or corrupt system, or of chaos or chance.

But where we hurt, where we feel and experience han, we are not guilty, we are dis-membered. We are not at peace in our own lives and experience. And often our hurt pulls us away from loving connection as well so we are dis-membered from ourselves and dis-membered from community.

At Jesus’ communion table, God re-members us.

Jesus says my body is given for you. My blood is poured out for you.

I am with you. You have God’s feeling, God’s attention, God’s resources, God’s life with you.

At the communion table, our hurt is seen and felt by Jesus, the fellow sufferer who understands.

At the communion table, our hurt is validated by God, who has experienced violence and betrayal, who has been the victim of crime and injustice, who has had sneering eyes look at his poor, brown body and mocked and spat upon him. The God who knows these experiences in God’s body is in our corner with our hurt.

At the communion table, our lonely self is seen by Jesus who felt so alone in his death that he cried out loud:

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Our forsakenness is met by a forsaken God, who remembers us and is listening.

At the communion table, our hurt no longer has the final word. We discover a union, a connection, a fellowship, a friendship with an everlasting God, with everlasting creative redemptive stories of bringing good out of bad, growing in us an everlasting hope that with the help of God and friends, that will be our story too.

And at the communion table, we take and eat and drink together. We’re encouraged to look around, to look at the eyes and the bodies of a community of imperfect, han-ridden, wounded, sinning, beautiful, messy fools who have messed up like us, who have been hurt like we have, and who are loved by a beautiful God and are on the same journey of recovery and discovery as we are.

We are re-membered to a community called the Body of Christ, where we are encouraged to love and accept one another. To welcome one another – our whole selves, just as we are – as Christ has welcomed us, so that we can find our welcome, and our next chapters, and our new and beautiful stories and purposes together.

Sin lessens us and hurts others. Our pride, our violence, our misdirected or uncontrolled desires hurt others, mar community, and diminish people and places. We need forgiveness and freedom to find a better path.

And our hurt rips us apart and diminishes our whole minds and bodies. It can cast a cloud of negativity and doom over our whole lives. We need the power and presence of a loving God who knows our stories, who understands, and who will re-member us to a more whole and hopeful self, and re-member us to loving community as well.

So, here’s what I’m encouraging you to do.

Stay active in a section of the Body of Christ. Take communion as often as it is offered.

And when you do so, bring your whole messy self, honestly to the table.

Confess your sins to the God who is faithful and just, and who is eager to forgive you of all your sins and cleanse us of all that isn’t right – to give us a clean conscience and a new start, and freedom to make amends and do right.

And when you come to the communion table, name your hurts and wounds and loneliness and need to Jesus, the fellow sufferer who understands, and who by the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God will put you back together, re-member you to one who is more whole and hopeful.

And look around you, at the grace of a community of fellow travelers, and be re-membered to one another. Offer best as you can the gift of your real self and your real story to your community. And offer the welcome and encouragement and love of the body of Christ as well, since that is who we are.

Thanks be to God.

Take a moment and sit with this invitation, as Pastor Lydia comes our way to welcome us to this table.


Every Day Pentecost: Listening to the Spirit Daily

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

For this week’s Spiritual Practice, led by Lydia Shiu, click HERE.

Hey, it’s been a while. I’m Steve, if we haven’t met, or if you’ve just forgotten that I’m around. I’m one of our pastors here at Reservoir. Thank you so much for your support in letting me take some extra time off after eight years into a delightful run as a senior pastor here. I took a month to take it easy, enjoy time with my beloved family, and get some time to myself. It was really refreshing to catch a break. If you have a chance to take even a few days off for rest and reflection after the year we’ve all been through – hey, even a few hours here and there, I highly recommend that. If any of you ever need some ideas on how to take a break for personal renewal, or maybe how to do that in your mid-life years in particular, let me know. I’m always game to help with that kind of thing. 

All to say, though, it’s great to be speaking with you again. I’m looking forward to today, as well as to some preaching I’ll be doing this summer starting next week. I’ll write a little bit about that in this week’s newsletter, coming to your email on Wednesday. 

Also, Happy Pentecost Sunday today! In the Christian calendar, Pentecost is a commemoration of the time when Jesus’ first followers experienced a captivating, powerful sense of God’s presence with them not long after they lost God’s presence among them through the person of Jesus. Jesus had said

after I go, things will get better, not worse. I will be with you through an Advocate, a Comforter, a Strengthener, a Truth-Teller, an Encourager,

literally as one who comes alongside, in Greek the Paraclete, which is the unseen Spirit of God. And Pentecost remembers a significant time Jesus’ first followers knew this was so. 

Pentecost was a holiday already, though, 2000 years ago. In Hebrew, it’s called Shavuot. And Shavuot, in the Jewish tradition, is also the celebration of the presence and gifts of God through two other means. Shavuot remembers the gift of God’s law, the Torah, to Moses in ancient times. Thank God for words to live by, for guidance for a healthy, just, good life. And it remembers the gift of food – Shavuot was a spring harvest festival. Thank God for food to live by. 

So Happy Pentecost to you today. And happy Shavuot!

This year, on Shavuot/Pentecost, I have on my mind the beautiful story of the Bible’s book of Ruth. I love this little book. Back in 2015, we did a whole multi-week series in this book – it was a project Will Messenger worked on with me. You can still find it online deep in our sermon archives. Ruth is a short book – you can read it easily in a sitting – and it’s got tragedy, redemption, great characters, sex and romance, surprise twists, and all kinds of beautiful and wise things it can illuminate when read well. But today, on Pentecost, there are three reasons I want to center this story.

One, it’s like the original Pentecost book. It’s an old, old story set around the time of a spring harvest and still read today in many Jewish communities around this holiday.

Two, the original Pentecost is a celebration of the giving of Torah, the articulation of Law by which people would find health and order and justice and life. It is the celebration of the command to live in what was meant to be the original expression of Beloved Community in our faith traditions. But Ruth messes with what law means in really interesting ways. 

The little book of Ruth pushes creative tension into the Old Testament’s account of what to do with law. 

See, in the Torah, there’s this bit of boundary marking about who can or can’t be at worship in the temple. And after the requisite comments about crushed testicles and other issues (I kid you not!), we get this:

Deuteronomy 23:3-4a

3Ammonites and Moabites can’t belong to the Lord’s assembly. Not even the tenth generation of such people can belong to the Lord’s assembly, as a rule,

4 because they didn’t help you with food or water on your journey out of Egypt.

That is some serious shade cast on other ethnic groups. If it sounds like someone’s grinding an ax here, well it’s because they are. These two ancient nation-states didn’t help us out, so they are never welcome in our house. And we’ll be tracking lineage, 10 generations deep. That’s extreme. 

But this thing with the Moabites doesn’t go away. In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, Israelite men who marry Moabite women are publicly shamed and commanded to divorce their wives. There are beatings, brawls over this thing. 

This strand of tension in the Bible reminds us that long standing conflicts with near neighbors do not heal easily or quickly. Time does not heal all wounds. The pain and bitterness and grudges and inequities and perpetuation of harm that flows from injustice can keep cursing down to the 10th generation and more. 

Think of Israel and Palestine, and what’s happening this spring.

Think race relations in this country, and race-based violence, as we remember the murder of George Floyd one year ago. 

One way out of the plague of memory and resentment is separation, exclusion, barriers. Torah prescribes this for the Moabites, delineating who’s right, who’s wrong, and how to achieve safety and justice. 

But then we get Ruth, which is a celebration of intermarriage between Jewish men and the most remarkable Moabite women, one of whom becomes the great-grandmother of the greatest ever king of Israel.

One lesson of Ruth for Shavuot is that legal and moral, ethical matters need to be worked out not just with principles in mind, not just abstractly, but in real, earthy detail, humanely, with specific people and places in mind.

This is true when it comes to border policies and policing. It’s true when it comes to things like family rules and company policies and practices as well. How do we do right by people? How do we heal wounds? How do we achieve justice? We need law and principles, but we can’t only follow them in the abstract. We have to love and honor the real people and situations in front of us that we’re dealing with today? What do dignity and love and justice and healing look like on the ground? 

And that could have been the sermon. Padraig O’Tuama has a whole book out about this. It’s called Borders and Belonging. You can check it out if you like. 

But there’s something else I feel we’re supposed to see today as we finish our series on Listening to the Spirit. Which is that Ruth is also a book about the creative leading of the Spirit of God in daily life. 

There are these three moments in Ruth where three different people say or do something utterly surprising, achingly beautiful, and powerfully transformative. Let’s read each and ask – why did this happen? And how did this happen? And what does this show us about how the Spirit of God speaks to and leads you and me? 

First, there’s Naomi. Naomi is a middle aged Jewish woman, widowed before her time. As a result, she finishes raising her two sons as a single mom. They grow up in Moab and marry Moabite women, this big no-no in the tradition, we heard. But after they marry, they each die young as well. And now Naomi has two Moabite daughters-in-law, trying to survive a famine together. In a patriarchal age, in which widows often faced destitution, you’d think Naomi would cling to her daughters-in-law, try to ride one of their coattails into a better situation. 

But instead she does this. 

Ruth 1:8-9 

8 Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me.

9 May the Lord provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.

Naomi thinks everyone will be better off in their own homeland. Dissolve this mixed family, go back as a beggar among her people, and let her daughters-in-law start over. That’s one way of reading the scene.

But another is to see in Naomi this extraordinary, self-giving, sacrificial love. Longing to see her daughters-in-law flourish, she encourages them to move on without her. It’s like: if you love somebody, set them free. In a way, it’s this extraordinary moment of love and courage. Where did this freedom come from? 

One daughter in law, Orpah, says a tearful goodbye, but the other, Ruth says: no way, we’re family now. My life is bound to yours. Let’s do this together. We get this in the text.

Ruth 1:16-18 

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.

17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.”

18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.

Ruth is the woman who helps care for her in-laws, even though they’re not her parents. She’s the busy woman who makes time to visit her parents, and sing through the window while they’re in lockdown during COVID. She’s the loyal friend, the loyal spouse who hangs in through sickness, mental illness, turns of fortune. Ruth is this paragon of love, to the degree that her words get used sometimes in wedding vows. And as the book, she will become a paragon of courage and boldness in different ways as well. 

She, a Moabite, is the rare person in the scriptures who is called an Eshet Hayil, a woman of valor, like the highest compliment you can give a woman in this tradition.

How does she live this way? Where does this love and courage come from?

The last, the third main character we meet is a Jewish landowner, and distant cousin of Naomi’s. His name is Boaz. 

When Naomi and Ruth return to Israel. Naomi sends Ruth to glean in his fields – to pick the extra harvest that Jewish law prescribed landowners to leave behind for those who had nothing. It’s a practice of Beloved Community that was baked into the law, that people with access to capital recognize their privilege and good fortune, and make sure it benefits those without capital as well. It’s like the obligation of a business – not just to its profits and customers, but to the broader community, and to the land, and to the native peoples of the land in which it operates. 

Anyway, Boaz meets Ruth and doesn’t just encourage her to keep gleaning in his fields. He goes out of his way to ensure she is protected against any possible sexual harassment and is empowered to thrive. Here’s one bit from Boaz.

Ruth 2:8-9 

8 Boaz said to Ruth, “Haven’t you understood, my daughter? Don’t go glean in another field; don’t go anywhere else. Instead, stay here with my young women.

9 Keep your eyes on the field that they are harvesting and go along after them. I’ve ordered the young men not to assault you. Whenever you are thirsty, go to the jugs and drink from what the young men have filled.”

The language is lifted out of the ancient times of the story, but Boaz emerges as what Richard Beck calls a “man of valor”, a Gibor Hayil. And it’s cool that what makes a man of valor is not wealth or power or skill in war, or any other ancient patriarchal archetypes. What makes a man of valor in Ruth is doing the right thing with your privilege, is generous and fair labor practice, is just and kind and appropriate relationship with women. 

Boaz goes on to follow his culture’s laws of goodness toward one’s distant in-laws, and through a kind of hot nighttime rendezvous, ends up becoming Ruth’s husband as well. It’s a great story, but it starts with Boaz meeting Ruth when she is most vulnerable and determining to be safe and tender and just and kind.

Where does this all come from? How is this man led to be so good?

I think what’s playing out in this story for each of the three main characters are the same things that play out in our own way in all our lives. So let me highlight three things that I think can lead us toward listening to and flowing with the movement of the Spirit for us, today. 

First – We’re all playing improv, all our lives, all the time.

Ruth is set in hard times. In the Bible, it comes right after the book of Judges, which tells the story of a hot mess of just about every kind of suffering and violence known to our species. No one’s living their best life, getting their dream job, married to their soulmate, or in any other way, living the dream.

The book of Ruth is all about people doing their best with their back-up plans, and sometimes with their backup plans to their back-up plans, and often with no plan at all! When times are hard, when plans are disrupted, when life isn’t going quite how we hoped it would, what do we have? 

I’m sure that you, like me, have had many plans upended this past year. It’s been hard. I’ve been confused and disillusioned and disappointed sometimes this year. But we’re learning that despite our best efforts to control life, this is a normal part of being a human on planet earth. 

Most of life is improvisation. It’s how we relate to our friends and family after the mess explodes. It’s who we love, who we commit to, who we will do life with when nothing else makes sense. It’s how we’ll treat our colleagues and our employees and the marginalized and discouraged in our communities when they’re in chaos. It’s our next move when life’s gone off course. 

I have less and less confidence in plans any more, and more and more in character, presence, faithfulness, and courage.

Friends, God doesn’t want your life to go according to script. And God can’t make your life go according to plan – that’s not the kind of power God has. What God can do, though, is be with you with perspective, peace, and love wherever you are today or any day. And God can encourage you that if you seek to be a person of character – a person of valor like Ruth or Boaz – a decent, safe, loving person who commits to the kindest, most loving options in front of you in life… God can encourage you that you’re going to find power and joy in that. 

Secondly – Every moment, God is offering creative possibilities to us all.

We saw in the text that Naomi and Ruth and Boaz, while improvising their way through strange and hard times, each at different moments find themselves saying and doing brave and kind and good things that turn their lives toward the good, that open up good things in other people’s lives too.

And we asked – where do these ideas come from? How are these folks led to the words and actions that turn their lives toward the best possibilities for them and for others around them? 

My understanding, and I believe the best understanding of the Christian faith, is that these impulses, these ideas come from the Spirit of God, who is near to us all, and inviting us every day toward the best, most creative, most loving possibilities for us and for the rest of the world around us. Our future is not pre scripted by anyone, God included, but God is in relationship with everyone and everything God has made, inviting us all toward what’s most creative, delightful, redemptive, and loving. God is doing this pre consciously, or what we call subconsciously, the great majority of the time. 

We don’t spend most of our lives, like our Sunday prayer teams at church, consciously looking for a word from God, wondering what God’s best invitation is moment to moment. But on Pentecost Sunday, we celebrate that God is speaking to us even when we’re not looking for it. God’s Spirit is with us: inviting us, encouraging us not toward some crazy ideal that’s way out of reach, but to the very best possibility we have in any situation. 

So what do I do when I’ve been laid off? When my loved one gets ill? When I’ve been done wrong by the last person I expected that to come from? 

What happens when my dreams for my kid die? Or when I’m not where I want to be in life? Or when I’ve been a jerk to the person I love? Or when my mental health has tanked? Or when I’m just having a bad day?

None of these things, none of any of the things you’re facing today, are an out-of-reach, out-of-help place for the Spirit of God. Just as God is the wisest and most loving being in the universe, God is also the most creative and adaptive one, the one who’s always got an inkling of a possibility for what’s next. And if we really believe the Spirit is speaking, that notion is already kicking around your mind somewhere.

Spirit of God is present to you, and Spirit of God has spoken.

Our church’s Christian past, in what was called the Vineyard group of charismatic or renewalist churches, was famous for calling out to God, “Come, Holy Spirit,” and expecting cool things to happen.

But with all respect to that heritage, it’s a weird prayer, as the Holy Spirit is already here. Today we celebrate that the Spirit HAS COME. 

So we can pray instead: Spirit, I’m glad you’re here – what are you speaking? My God, what creative best is available right now?

And here’s one way we know which thoughts most connect us with God’s possibilities. By knowing what God loves and longs for for us all. 

Which is this:

Third – Spirit of God wants satisfaction, provision, life, joy for you – and for all God’s children – today. 

We see in both Ruth and Boaz aspects of the character and nature of God. Ruth in her loving loyalty, in her bold and disruptive and creative moves to bring about goodness and love and redemption. And Boaz in his self-giving love. And in Boaz’s earthy invitation to Ruth:

Whenever you are thirsty, go to the jugs of water and drink,

we hear a little echo, a little foretaste of the Spirit of God at Pentecost.

God has determined to not be God without us. 

Whenever we are thirsty for love, for meaning, for hope, God is eager to meet us. 

God has and is more than enough for us all. 

When we’re looking for the voice of God, wondering how God is inviting, speaking to us beneath our consciousness, we can ask what idea, what thought, what inclination holds the most promise of life, satisfaction, and joy – not just for me, but for me and others – and we may find ourselves moving towards God’s invitations.

And when we’re looking for the presence of God, wondering how to pray, how to know God is with us, we can take whoever or whatever brings satisfaction, provision, life, and joy to us or those around us, and see that or them as a way God is loving us, as a means through which God is stirring, as a sign of Spirit’s presence and goodness to us all.

Don’t Settle for Dirty Water

For this week’s events and happenings, click “Download PDF.”
To watch the worship service, click the YouTube link above.
For this week’s spiritual practice “Why Am I Here?” led by Ivy Anthony, click HERE.
Jeremiah 2:4-13 (NRSV)

4 Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5 Thus says the Lord:

What wrong did your ancestors find in me
that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
6 They did not say, “Where is the Lord
who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
in a land that no one passes through,
where no one lives?”
7 I brought you into a plentiful land
to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination.
8 The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal,
and went after things that do not profit.

9 Therefore once more I accuse you,
says the Lord,
and I accuse your children’s children.
10 Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
send to Kedar and examine with care;
see if there has ever been such a thing.
11 Has a nation changed its gods,
even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
for something that does not profit.
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
13 for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
that can hold no water.

“Peace Be With You”

For this week’s events, click on “Download PDF.”

Today was our Graduation Sunday in Virch. Congratulations, Graduates of 2020! We love you!

Click YouTube link to watch our virtual service, with a special video just for our grads.

Part 1: Wounded Nation

Good morning, my friends. It’s good to be with you today. 

We are in the midst of two pandemics.  The Covid-19 pandemic that has claimed the lives of at least 107,000 people in the United States.  

And we are in the midst of a racism pandemic. 

And we grieve. Oh we grieve, the exponential loss of black lives.  We grieve so recently the loss of Breonna Taylor – who’s 27th birthday, would have been this past Friday.  We remember and say her name once again today, Breonna Taylor. 

This racism pandemic is one that has plagued our nation since it’s birth.

And so not surprisingly the vulnerabilities and inequities laid bare by the covid pandemic have fallen hardest on Black bodies.  Revealing to us how we have long been deeply sick as a nation, with no balm for the aching.  

As the delayed waves and ripples of awareness make their way across our country uncovering where we have left the wounds of black people raw and untreated,  for 400+ years  – we have a lot to learn about the power and the tenderness of wounds. …how to let our black siblings rest – and how to get at the underlying work of dressing those wounds. 


We are a wounded nation. And we have long been a wounded nation.


On Monday this week our family talked of vigils, rallies, marches which ones we would be a part of in the days to come – realizing what a privilege it is to have the luxury of choice.  A part of – what that means… to be in solidarity to be an ally?  What we could be a part of changing…. We talked around all of these points – but hadn’t acutely brought Jesus into the conversation.

My daughter interrupted and asked, “But does it really matter if we pray?  I mean it’s been so long, people have been praying for so long – and it seems like nothing has changed – nothing is working. So does it matter?”


Scott and I reflexively went into a discourse on prayer, “well – it depends on how you think about prayer,  action v. sitting at the periphery… blah, blah, blah…and how our own experiences of faith in our past have led us down these different paths of prayer.”


And she interrupted again and said, “Stop – I want you to answer my question – does prayer matter?”


Such a disruptive question. 


A question that holds within it the bewilderment of what she bears witness to.  Such deep pain, wounding in the world – and the truth of what she knows of God – to help… and yet calling out that this mode of prayer  – does not seem TO WORK. 

We need to start paying attention to, and listening to the voices that say, “Things aren’t working”… whether it’s a 13 yr old – or the wounded crying out in pandemics – or a disciple like Thomas, (who we will spend more time with this morning).  Because these voices will be what HELPS us into building/creating alternative landscapes of care in our world – that hold both the power of the resurrected and wounded Jesus.  


[PRAYER] God, show us what’s in these wounds. Invite us into the most intimate, deepest, HARD & messiest parts of ourselves and others. Help us to keep pressing in – to listen and learn – so we can move trusting that this is where you reside also.  


Part II: Scripture
Let’s read together the story of the disciple, Thomas.  I invite you into this ancient story this morning – to see how it translates to your own unique, story… let’s read together:


John 20:19–29 (NIV)

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger [IN] where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Jesus has just died. The disciples’ wounds of grief, and despair are so raw. And they are sheltering themselves in a room, they have retreated in fear of the leaders who demanded Jesus’ death, and are still circling – looking for Jesus followers.  And so the disciples go back to the last place they were with Jesus alive.  To find peace. ..

You see these disciples had imagined and believed for a world that was not governed by state-sponsored violence. They had dared to dream and to hope for a world where flourishing of humanity would lend itself to equitable life…a world where healing could be realized for everyone.   

They believed IN resurrection.  

Yet instead they saw death.  Death on the cross of their friend and teacher, their rabbi. And with his death, the dying of their own vision and dreams – for this new kin-dom of God.

And so here they are in a liminal, in-between space, this waiting room.   WAITING. 
Their grief is so much though, and maybe doubt is creeping in too –  this waiting space between death and hope is hard to be in – when everything is atrociously the same as it was the day before. 

What the disciples want in this waiting room is, “peace”.  A version of peace that allows them an escape from the loud threats, a place to quiet their inner turmoil and grief, a temporary loss of sensation – some numbing agent – some anesthesia. They want a version of resurrection to burst into that room, like the sun – shining with warmth and permeating, obvious hope… not a version of resurrection that in it’s sunbeams reveals the injustice and suffering of the world, as abundant as dust particles.  And they ask their own disrupting questions at that familiar table, “What is resurrection then? What is peace?”

And then their answer comes.  Jesus appears to them from behind these locked doors. Resurrection in the flesh. With Bleeding, Open, Raw wounds  – embodying the very thing they don’t want to see aymore – the wounds of injustice… but saying the very thing they hoped for, “Peace be WITH you”.   A bewildering picture, but one they immediately notice as their Lord.

Part I(b) – revisited:  US

We too – are in a waiting room my friends.  This inbetween place… Where  like the disciples we are witnessing death and waiting for resurrection.   

The kind of resurrection that Jesus brings is one with the promise for tomorrow, a way forward when it only looks like dead-ends – an upheaval of unjust systems – flipping tables and turning everything on its head…it’s hope. It’s resurrection. 

But it’s messy and gritty and it will require us to be close to pain.  Now for . And move. And act in love. 

Jesus likes to disturb, surprise and provoke- to roll back stones, and bust through walls .

He asks us to do the same.  He breathes the HOLY Spirit on to these disciples – to send them out into the world – to create a new humanity – to birth something different. New.
And so, instead of “waiting” behind closed doors – Jesus shows us in this scripture how to bring resurrection to our world… and that is to not give in to despair -and not deny the pain – but to get close to the wounds – “proximate to pain”, as Bryan Stevenson the author of Just Mercy tells us.   
Many of you who inhabit black bodies, know this pain by lived experience.  And my words to come are not to ask you to inspect your pain – you know it so well.  My words are for my white siblings to come and lean in closer – but not by probing black people for information,  adding a fresh layer of trauma – 

But by asking one another these disrupting fundamental questions – like “does prayer matter?”, “Is America possible?” “what do i feel or not feel?” “ IS Jesus alive?”

And with the breath of the Spirit, discover the answers – by walking them out – by going into the wounds of our country, by getting closer,  to look at them deeper in ourselves – and follow Jesus in standing in solidarity with the pain of the world around us.  We need to try to continue to agitate ourselves to be proximate to the pain.

So that we can look at such pain, such wounds in Jesus’ hands, his feet, his sides… such pain in our nation,   and say STILL  – HE IS ALIVE… that is resurrection. 

Because to be proximate and ask questions – will help bust down long standing walls and structures.  And seeing the risen Jesus reminds us that the power of love can not be deadened within us.

Part III: Thomas & doubt:

Thomas loved Jesus so much.  He cared so much for the power of resurrection that could be brought to the world..  And he does not shy away from asking the uncomfortable questions  – earlier in this gospel, he says to Jesus, “NO, I don’t know where you are going?  How are we to know where you are going?”  And here in this scripture we see Thomas say to his friends, “Really? You have seen the Lord?  Is it so that Jesus is alive?  I must see it for myself.” 
Because, I doubt it. 

This is vulnerable work.  He too, witnessed the injustice, the violence the brutality  -the death of his teacher, Jesus.  And he too knows that Jesus said he would come back, resurrect.  He cares so much that this be true, for himself and humanity – that he can’t just stand on the outside and passively accept it as true.

So he says, “I must see and touch the wounds.”  The power of vulnerability, how to not just go close to pain and injustice, but to know more about it – to press into it…. 

A friend of mine says that, “Doubt is the friend of questions and the teacher of truth”. (Padraig O’Tuama).  Perhaps Thomas’ disruptive question here, “Is Jesus alive?” – unveils the truth – that yes, Jesus is alive – and this alive-ness looks like resurrection and woundedness.   

Doubt, questions are vulnerable – because they challenge the status quo.  The word vulnerable from the Latin word, “vulnus” – means “wound.”


So it makes sense that Jesus’ response to Thomas’ doubt, invites him to touch his wounds, a vulnerable action. If we re-read the words of Jesus – in these verses – we see that Thomas’ need for proof didn’t strike Jesus as a challenge – but was an invitation for Thomas to open up, to be vulnerable to go deeper. “Put your finger [IN] here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it INTO my side. Stop doubting and believe.”  COME IN, Thomas. COME IN from the periphery of the room, the periphery of your faith. Faith in me, is getting close to the pain, the wounding, – within yourself too.. because from here is where the gospel resides and goes forth. 

Doubt, our disruptive questions….. are our faculties for understanding what’s about to happen and where we need to go.  Jesus says, go to the “wounds”.  Go to the places, the people, the cracks where hurt is, pain, discomfort is – and embody Jesus there. BE a prayer there.

Our prayers, our dreams, our hope are birthed often from the spaces where wounds are, where we’ve paid attention to what’s hurting, learned of the injustices, how these wounds were caused. 

My daughter’s question at the table – revealed to me, a peripheral version of prayer.  A way to shelter behind a word, like the disciples, locked behind doors – hoping for  “hollow peace”.. .removed from the debris, the noise, the ache of life. ..” These words prayer, peace – hold no vision if they aren’t embodied…

Proverbs 29:18 says that, “where there is no vision, the people perish” – but Jesus reminds me as he busts through locked doors and hearts –  that he and WE can embody both resurrection and woundedness –  we can call for justice and peace – and in this people LIVE.

Thomas shows us that the vision that he and his fellow disciples had for the kin-dom of God ..the dreams they held of sharing the good news with so many – the hope they had for a more just world… would only be birthed when they became embodied….  When they took on flesh, broken, wounded flesh. 


Today I ask to touch Jesus’ wounds  – his hands his feet his side.  Because I grieve today – I have grief upon grief … because I need to know that he is tender, and alive in this crazy waiting room of life  – where I strain to see resurrection.   And I ask to touch Jesus’ wounds as a prayer – to draw me from the periphery of my “stilted” faith, to active faith.

How many of you today, are walking around with fresh wounds? 
How many of you have wounds that have been gaping and aching for a long, long time?

Part IV: “Peace be with you”
Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”  “Peace be with you.”

This peace goes beyond what the disciples were hoping for when they went into that upper room.  This peace is a deep call, an embodied prayer.  Birthed from known places of woundedness and injustice.  And from a place where the HOLY SPIRIT breathes her powerful breath. 

I invite as Jesus does – for those black siblings among us who need peace to be REST.. to rest.  To find peace in the  familiarity and comfort of trusted friends.   And I am inviting those who CAN to find peace in action.  To act, to go out and disturb unjust peace – on behalf of those who need rest.  

Peace be with you, as you move OR as you rest.  For those of us who move – know that peace is not an escape from what is hard, or from what is loud, or  painful – but it is a way into the wounds with hearts and eyes and ears wide open. It’s not a word to shelter under, to stay separate from the world.  It is what we pray for to STAND IN the wounds, it’s what we pray for to CALL out injustice, it’s what we embody when we get proximate to those who ache, are tired and hopeless.  PEACE is a strong, powerful, ACTIVE force that generates and binds us to one another, that helps us resist numbness and keeps us intimately engaged.

So many of us wish to return to normal, rush to regain a sense of previous familiarity.  But if the therapists among us are right – we will not return to “normal,” ever again..we will forever be marked by this time…    And if the black voices among us are right – we should not want to return to “normal” ever again.  

So it is time for us to come close to Jesus, with our  doubt, to get intimate, vulnerable, to be uncomfortable….  Not just intellectualize or create policy or laws to help thwart pain and injustices… BUT use our bodies to  speak  -and drive justice…to change hearts and heal.  THIS IS why I think JEsus says “peace be with you.”  We can’t feel that peace, without justice… and we can’t feel that justice without going to the source of the pain..

What will we shape, imagine, dream, vision for – and how will we pray? What will we embody?

What do our mouths ask for? – and how will our own bodies/our flesh be part of the answer?

Thomas shows us where to begin – with the wounded, resurrected Jesus.  

The one who holds the whole world in his hands.  The  pain and joy and trauma and beauty – and asks US to also hold it too –  asks US to embody him in the world .  

May we greet today as resurrected and wounded people, and may we be greeted by Jesus at every turn saying “peace be with you”.  “Peace be with you.”


Ending Prayer:

I’m thankful today for how my daughter pushes me to pray connected to wounds and resurrection in my body….  and how the scriptures echo her thoughts, “not to pray like the hypocrites, who love to pray standing in the synagogues – (and in front of churches) – and on the street corners to (merely) be seen by others.” Matthew 6:5…..but to pray,

9 “Oh God, Divine parent of us all – *in whom is heaven* (New Zealand Prayer Book).

Holy, Loving, wounded one is what we call you. 

May your love be enacted in this world THROUGH us.
and may you be our LIVING guide to create the world now, and as we imagine it to be.
11 Give us what we need to do this work – today, our daily bread.

12 And forgive us our debts,  as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us – Oh God, deliver us –  from the evil one.’

Peace be with you.  Peace be with you.  Peace be with you – today, my friends.

There is Enough

We’ve got a lot going on today so I’m going to get right into it here with some words from Jesus.  We are finishing up our spring prophetic living series. Next week, and for all 11 weeks of summer at Reservoir, our pastoral team will speak at our 10:30 services as we’re guided by the Bible texts of the day. Rather than choosing those texts as part of a series, we’ll draw them from a shared Bible reading plan called the lectionary, that churches in many traditions use. We keep a daily version of this Bible reading plan on our website, where it’s called Read the Bible Together, and we’ll be using the Sunday weekly version of that calendar this summer, just like we did last year.

But today we’re wrapping up these 8 weeks we’ve called Prophetic Living – living as if our best hopes in God are timely and true. We’ve drawn from a smattering of the wisdom of the ancient Hebrew prophets in our Bible’s Old Testament, and a bit from Jesus when he’s functioning as a prophet too. Both Christianity and Islam esteem Jesus as a truth teller; I think the teaching of Jesus holds pretty broad respect in non-religious American culture at large as well. Although most Americans, just like most Muslims and just like most Christians, haven’t really grappled a lot with the content of the teaching of Jesus.

Jesus’ words are on the one hand so simple, and at the same time so deep they’re kind of inscrutable. Jesus tells these stories about farming and fish and water and widows that are earthy and grounded and at the same time seem to nudge us toward a life that impossible – impossibly hard, impossibly beautiful, impossibly provocative, impossibly good. I come in and out of passion and interest with most religious things, but I think I will never tire of the words of Jesus.

Let me share a few of them right now. In Luke’s good news, Jesus tells this little story. Jesus says:

15 Then Jesus said to them, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. 17 He said to himself, What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! 18 Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. 19 I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’ 21 This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.”

-Luke 12:15-21 (CEB)

Jesus, what a story you tell, Jesus. It’s funny. This guy is so excited, so pleased with his own good luck and clever ideas. And then God enters the story, and depending on your point of view, or the mood you’re in that day, it gets even funnier, or it gets kind of dark.

“Fool, tonight you will die. How’s that barn doing for you now, fella?”

Jesus’ listeners, who were largely what we’d consider really poor, probably would have cheered this turn in the story. But it’s provocative too, isn’t it? I’m not going to try to answer all the questions this story raises, because I want to focus on something else. But I really wanted to tell this story, and raise the questions it asks about how we accumulate and what’s important.

This guy and his barn and what it all means at his death – I’m going to mainly just let it hang there. I don’t think the takeaway is to spend zero energy planning for our future – to give no thought to our future is sometime to ensure our future regret and to ensure trouble for our loved ones.

But to my mind, Jesus is suggesting that a focus on accumulating possessions and wealth and security for ourselves, makes us not a very good friend of God, and not even a very good friend to ourselves.

Why is that? And what is the prophetic alternative Jesus is pitching?

That’s where I want to go. Let’s keep reading the rest of this section of Luke.

22 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 There is more to life than food and more to the body than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither plant nor harvest, they have no silo or barn, yet God feeds them. You are worth so much more than birds! 25 Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? 26 If you can’t do such a small thing, why worry about the rest? 27 Notice how the lilies grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. 28 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, how much more will God do for you, you people of weak faith! 29 Don’t chase after what you will eat and what you will drink. Stop worrying. 30 All the nations of the world long for these things. Your Father knows that you need them.31 Instead, desire his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.

32 “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions and give to those in need. Make for yourselves wallets that don’t wear out—a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys. 34 Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.

-Luke 12:22-34 (CEB)

So I think what we do with these words has a lot to do with the tone that we imagine Jesus speaking them. Now I hate it when people tone police my words, like when I say something to one of my kids, and they’re like: Dad, why’d you have to say that? And I’m like, I said: Hey, what do you need? And they’ll say to me: No, it’s that tone of voice you said it in.

Which is totally annoying, and totally fair, because I do the same thing to them, like: Don’t you look at me with that tone of voice.

It’s true. So much of our communication is beyond the words themselves – our tone and posture and body language. And here we have these words of Jesus on the page, and what and how we think about Jesus is going to have a big impact on how we take these words.

So if we imagine Jesus to be kind of strict and fed-up and annoyed with people who are getting in the way of the whole Son of God thing he’s trying to do, then we’ll hear these words as something like: Get. It. Together. You faithless people, who are so obsessed with money, knock it off. Pay attention to God instead.

And you know what, if we think this is how Jesus talks, we may or may not agree with the point we think he’s making, but we will not do it. He’ll seem too strict and too hard, and we’ll ignore his words and get all defensive or ashamed about it, but we will not do anything he says. Or we’ll do what we think he’s saying, but we’ll be as smug or critical or superior as we think Jesus is, and that too will be full of anxiety and an empty heart. And that will miss the point as well.

Instead I encourage you to believe that Jesus is gentle and that even the provocative things he says are said kindly and without any anxiety. So here, Jesus is like: “Sweetie.” He actually says, Little Flock, which is affectionate and warm, but I’ve never really been around a flock of anything before, so it doesn’t land. But I have this one friend who calls me Sweetie sometimes. It was weird and frankly horrifying to me for a while, and you do not have permission to call me that if you’re not related to me, but with this one friend, I got used to it, and now it’s warm and I take it with the affection he means when he says it.

Anyway, Jesus is like: Little Flock, sweetie, it’s OK. I know that life is hard. There is so much you can worry about. But there’s a better way. I’ve got your back. I know what you need. But take a look over here. There are people, there are treasures, just waiting for you.

I had this thing with Jesus recently when I was reminded how gentle he is and reminded about striving too. It started when I got ridiculously obsessed with exercise for a month or so. Part of my ADHD involves some impulsivity and a tendency to hyper-focus now and then on certain things. And last month, that involved working out, probably too much. OK, definitely too much.

Now there are worse things than working out, I suppose, but I was feeling a little embarrassed by how much time I had put into this, and kind of judgy on myself as well. And I had spiritualized that self-judgment, because when I talked to Jesus about this, I thought maybe Jesus was asking me what I was doing, in a particular judgy way I won’t get into right now.

So I tell this friend of mine, someone called a spiritual director – he’s basically my pastor – about this and about what I thought Jesus was saying.

And my friends says: just to be clear, those judgmental questions – are you sure they were the voice of God, or is it possible those were your thoughts about yourself, Steve? And he waited to say more, as I thought about it and realized: you know, I’m not so sure the judgment on me was coming from Jesus. That may have been me assuming how God sees me again. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. So many of us shape our image of God in the image of the angry or emotionally shut down or neglectful or critical authorities of our youth. And so we make gods for ourselves that don’t particularly honor God or ourselves.

But now, open that the real God might see me kindly, my friend suggested some other ways to interpret all the exercise I’d been doing: a less judgmental, even a more positive way of framing it. And somehow, it opened me up to what I came to believe was the actual voice of Jesus. Where in a silence in that conversation, this thought came to mind that felt like Jesus to me, saying Steve, this is good that you’re taking care of yourself. And Steve, I love that you’re joining in with your kids in things to do together too. But Steve, sweetie, is there a reason you’re going after this so much? Why are you striving, Steve? What are you striving for?

This to me sounded like Jesus, affirming the good he saw in me, like someone who knows and loves me and is gentle with me. And in the context of that gentle knowledge and love, raising something I need to see: why are you striving?

That word striving means so much to me. Because striving – working hard, working ambitiously, even impulsively, is in many areas of my life, part of how I’ve built a good life for myself. I’ve gotten some good things from striving.

But striving – pushing myself hard, ambitiously – is one of the ways that since I was teenager, I’ve tended to avoid my pain and not engage the most important things going on in my life too.

Some of us strive because we worry, and that’s our predilection. We struggle with anxiety. And thankfully there is help for that and we can make peace with that too, that this is part of who we are, and that’s OK, and we can learn with help to manage it. I’m not talking about that kind of worrying and whatever striving that might produce. And I don’t think Jesus is either.

I’m talking about the striving that people like me do, putting all this energy and self-protective labor into our drive because we’re trying to avoid an ache in our lives or because we’re afraid of the future.

Jesus says: I understand. But look at the flowers, look at the grass. God makes it so beautiful and how much more will God do for you. If we strive because there’s this ache or this problem we’re trying to avoid, we don’t have to, because God loves us. And we can sit with our lives with that same compassion. How much more will God do for you.

And if we strive because we’re afraid of the future, for what it holds for us or for our kids or for this earth, Jesus is like: look at the birds. They have no thought of the future, but God takes care of them, and no offense to the birds, but you are worth so much more.

When it comes to worry and striving, Jesus addresses our pragmatism. He asks: when has this ever worked? When have we made our life longer? When have we clenched our teeth and gritted out our way into joy? Jesus even manages to slip in a little dig at the famous King Solomon, the archetype of wealth and power in his culture. Jesus does this little side by side comparison. On the one side, there’s King Solomon – all the wealth and glory and fashion you could ever dream of striving your way up to. On the other side, grass. King Solomon, grass.

Have you been outdoors this spring? Grass wins. Really. This world God made and sustains is so beautiful.

What King Solomon-type are you striving to be? What vision of success or wealth or power or beauty or worthiness are you wishing you could worry or work or white-knuckle yourself into?

You’re better than that. You be you, the beautiful one God made, the beautiful one you are already.

You are enough, this world is enough, has enough, because, Jesus says, God is enough.

All the nations of the world want the things you want, Jesus says. And God, your good parent, knows what you need.

But think about what happens to us when we don’t think we’re enough, when we don’t think God has enough, when we’re striving and striving.

Our gaze becomes very focused and very small. Jesus calls it food and clothing, but it could be a lot of things. We can only see that next rung in our achievement, or that next dollar, or that next better day in our future. Or more often than not, we only see that opportunity that passed us by, that failure behind us or looming in front of us, that fatal flaw in our appearance or our family or our children or our fate.

Worry and striving lead us to a small and unhappy gaze.

While Jesus is saying, my Father has a Kingdom for you.

Now, a small aside here, we’ve spent time over the past year now and then encouraging us that some of the default patriarchal language and in our religious heritage isn’t the only vocabulary we have for God. Jesus again and again calls God Father, but there’s a subtext teaching us that God is Mother to us too. I’ve taught multiple times that family, or kin-dom, can be a great way of understanding what Jesus is getting at when Jesus talks about the Kingdom God is growing.

Today, in traditional church settings, is called Trinity Sunday, after the Christian formulation of the mystery that God is one being expressed in three persons – traditionally called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And theologians have been helpful to us in recent years in giving us broader ways, more language, to frame this three-fold personhood of God, so Father-Son-Holy Spirit can also be to us Maker-Guide-Wisdom, or Mother-Sibling-Advocate.

So much space in God, so much language to help us know and love and move close to God in ways that suit us today.

But this particular day being Father’s Day, I’m going to stay old school and just work Jesus’ language in this passage of Father and Kingdom.

Because what better gift can a Father give a child than to say: what you worry about today, I’ll help you take care of that. But look, there’s so much more for you too. Let me show you the best and biggest things in this world.

Perhaps a father, or if not perhaps a father-figure, has done that for you before – come alongside to help or encourage or protect and then also to help you see bigger or better or more beautiful things than you’d noticed before. Perhaps if you’re a father, you’ve done that for a child.

Jesus says this is what God is doing for God’s kids, to try to shift out attention from our striving and fears that we aren’t enough, that this world doesn’t have enough for us, and to show us this big and beautiful thing God is doing on the earth, this thing Jesus calls God’s Kingdom. God is growing people and places and spaces where God’s good and generous ways come to life.

And Jesus is saying: look at that for a while, be part of that, grow that with me. Open up your gaze. Find a bigger goal. Build a better treasure. Try trusting that the smaller things will take care of themselves.

I spent a lot of my late 20s with a smaller gaze, striving, worry that I wasn’t enough, that God didn’t have enough for me. Partly because of the family I was raised in, partly because of my own hang-ups, I was so afraid that my life wouldn’t amount to enough, that the story of my career and all the rest of me would be a failure. And most of that decade, I felt I didn’t have enough money, and so I worried about how money was spent in my household and felt and thought all kinds of judgy things about people and money in my life. And these not enough ways always made my life harder and smaller, but there were break-throughs in that first decade of my adult life in seeing the bigger, and more beautiful world God was trying to build and have me be a part of.

One of those ways was falling in love with and then marrying Grace. Because for me, that was a way of taking my eyes off of my own “not enough” and on to someone else, and starting to learn to love – to seek someone else’s highest good. I’m still not very good at this, but I’ve come to see some of the best and most beautiful things God is doing come when my gaze stays on someone else and on loving and appreciating and encouraging what I see. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be. Treasure your own needs and fears, and your heart just stays with you. Treasure others’ joy and fulfillment as well, and your heart gets tied up with them too, which is a path to some amount of pain, but a path to so much joy as well.

You obviously don’t need to be married or have kids to have this experience. For me, in my 20s, marriage and then having my first child were windows into learning to love. But so was youth work – first college ministry and then public education. And for you, it might well be happening in some other way.

I even had a little taste in my 20s of learning the Father’s beautiful, more than enough Kingdom on the terms that Jesus is going to in this passage, with money. Sell what you have and give it away to those who need it more, Jesus says. Make yourself better wallets – ones that will last.

I didn’t have a ton of money in my 20s, but with what I had, I made a lot of bad money choices. Who hasn’t? I blew money on a couple dumb things. I didn’t use money toward some great things I could have. There was even a time when one of my grandparents died and I got a life insurance payment, I hadn’t known about. I had a couple thousand dollars I was going to try to learn to invest with. One of my friends insisted I put it on this new company he was buying his books from online. He said it was called Amazon, and that if he had any money to invest, he’d put it there. I was like: Amazon, a book store you can’t even visit and open the books. No way.

If I had invested $1,000 in Amazon back then, I’d have $1,208,000 today. That’s a lot more money than I have. That might have been nice. I didn’t do that, though.

One thing I did, though, is know that it’s always broken my heart when kids are neglected and abused. And with the couple thousand dollars of the insurance money that Grace and I were ready to give away, I found an organization that would use that money to send four girls in Southeast Asia to high school and out of risk for human trafficking. And when we gave that money and got that report, I cried for joy as much as I ever had to that point. That just seemed like a huge treasure we had our found our way into.

And despite my many mistakes, and many moments of striving and fear and small-mindedness, each time I’ve been part of a big and beautiful thing God has done, it’s shaped my heart in ways nothing can change, and no one can take away.

But now I’m not in anything like my 20s. I’m mid-way through my 40s now. And so instead of asking: what life will I build for myself? Now I’m asking: how do I feel about this life that I’ve built, and that has been built for me? What parts do I treasure? What parts do I accept? What parts do I course correct?

How in all that can I say: There is enough. With the help of God and friends, I am enough. Life has enough. God is enough.

Thankfully, I find that as I’m doing this, because of my engagement in this faith community, I’m surrounded by encouragement and models in this regard.

Last week I spoke with someone in their 40s who has more money than they expected to have at this point in life, and we were talking – not for the first time – about a way they felt a desire to use some of that money toward something beautiful they thought God was wanting to do in the world. And when I went to appreciate them for their generosity, they said: hey, it’s God’s money. And they said it so reflexively, so quickly, that it was clearly the result of years of thinking in that regard, years of learning that when their money is tied to God’s beautiful work in the world, they have treasure.

A couple weeks ago, I was with a colleague of mine who is based in Mattapan. He’s a Haitian-American pastor, who also runs a small business to support his family. And in his ministry, and through his business, and with huge swaths of his so-called free time, he advocates for his fellow immigrant congregants and customer and community members, whose immigration status and life in this country are less secure than his. I find myself wondering sometimes why he puts so much work into this when his life is secure now, but then I notice that he’s not striving to make his mark in the world or anything. He’s got a mission, and he finds passion and joy in it. And that encourages me to give a little more to God’s beautiful work securing the futures of vulnerable residents of my nation. I’m not alone in this congregation. Many of you are doing the same, which is why we’re celebrating World Refugee Day today, because there’s an awful lot of work to do on behalf of our immigrant and refugee and asylum-seeking brothers and sisters, but there are many of us to do that work, and many of us to do it. Stop by the tables in the dome at the end of the service to learn more.

I could tell a lot more stories about the people in this church, and the people throughout my life, that are inspiring me to find a better treasure by building a better wallet, who are encouraging me to step into the big and beautiful things God is doing around me.

But instead of more stories, I’ll just punctuate this by saying this is not another burden, not a set of hard things God is wanting to make you do, but a delight and joy for us all. This is part of what it means, Jesus says, for God to be a good Father to us all – to free us from our fears, to tell us we are enough and this world is enough because God is enough for us, and then to not shield us from pain or just give us everything we once thought we wanted. Good parents don’t give our kids everything they want, and we know that it’s not possible and not even good to shield our kids from every pain. Instead, God is a good Father, and a good Mother, to us all, by taking care of us, and especially to calling us into treasuring all the big and beautiful things God is doing around us, and letting God do some of that through us as well.

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

In personal interactions and in systems, generously do what diminishes the causes of other people’s stress and striving.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Rest. Refocus. Aim to serve the person and purposes of God.

The Good That Comes When We Remember We’re Dust

Today is the last week in our early fall series we called An Embodied Faith. The goal of these eight weeks of teaching and worship was to explore how a Jesus-centered faith can speak to us as whole people. After all, whatever you want to call all the parts of the human experience – body, mind, soul, spirit, whatever – we’re all in the end just one thing. You can’t split us into parts and still have us. And the really cool thing about a Jesus-centered faith is that it tells us God gets that at every level. God, after all, has joined the human experience incarnate, God in a body, which is what our tradition says Jesus was.


Clearly there are toxic forms of Christianity that only care about the afterlife and some part of us you’d call soul or spirit. And there are unhealthy forms of religion and ethics that shame our bodies or ignore our minds, or dismiss our deepest aspirations. But embodied faith connects the God who made us all with the whole of our experience.


And I thought: we can’t talk about embodied faith without talking about how to make meaning out of what are bodies actually are. Glorious as they are, they’re also awful. They get sick and fall apart. Our bodies remind us in big and small ways that we’re dying. We’re all made of dust.


You hear this phrase sometimes at funerals – ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s poetry that references a feature of the Jewish and Christian origin story. These faiths assert a special dignity and beauty of the human experience that is fairly unique in the pantheon of world philosophy and religion. But they also assert what is common really to all faith and science – an understanding that we are made of dust.


The Bible has this bit of existential poetry in a book called Ecclesiastes; that’s one of the places this is stated. It goes like this:


Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 (NRSV)

19 For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.


Every year, our church makes a big deal of this six week season before Easter. We call it 40 Days of Faith. Traditionally, it’s been called Lent and begins with this holiday called Ash Wednesday, when pastors or priests smudge ashes on your forehead and remind you of your mortality. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We’re all going to die.


The first year I did that, I thought – this is somehow very intimate and very creepy and very sobering all at once. But I’ve also found that being reminded of this dust to dust nature of our bodies takes us to some good places, grounds us, uplifts.


So today, I’m going to share some meditations on the good that can come when we remember that our dying bodies are made of dust. In particular, I think we can grow connection and compassion, take away some really helpful thoughts about criticism along these lines, and move into profound hope as well.


So that’s the outline of this talk, if it helps you to follow along – connection, compassion, criticism, and hope. You ready?




The other week, I found myself facing down a conference table’s worth of lawyers in our attorney general’s office, trying to represent a national network of faith-based organizers on immigration concerns.


When I realized I’d be playing an important role in these negotiations, I felt my shoulders tense a little. My mouth started to go dry. Like I used to feel when I was younger before track races, I felt my stomach start to turn over as I got ready to speak with powerful people about a topic they understand better than I do.


But then a friend – a fellow person of faith – told me: It’s alright, Steve. All power comes from God. There’s no one higher or lower than each other. We’re all the same.


That helped. After all, it’s true – we’re just human. We’re all going to die one day. We are all of the dust.


Remembering this doesn’t just help me overcome fear, but make connection, both to other living things and to the earth. We face something of an epidemic of fear and loneliness and alienation in our age. And yet to know that my neighbor and cashier and sons are all dust, that the public figures I most adore and those I most resent all share my same material origins and destiny, is to remind me that we are all connected. I can look into the eye of any human being and say – there is my sister, there is my brother.

And sometimes when I’m nervous or just a little unmoored, not feeling my place in things, I literally reach down and touch the ground and remember that no matter where I am, I am at home. I am from the earth, of the earth.

This is kind of a new insight for me, but it’s an old one in the spirituality and thinking of First Americans. That we’re all related – humans to humans, and even humans to all living things and to the earth itself.

This is part of what Ecclesiastes is getting at in its own dour way, when it tells us that humans, animals, all life returns to the same ground from which we came.

We need to practice and teach this deep bondedness of all human beings to one another if we’re going to have an end to the kind of hate crimes and mass violence we saw in yesterday’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. And we explore the implications of this deep connection of all living things to one another and to the earth itself if we want our species and our planet to flourish over the next century and beyond.

Sometimes I’m ready for the big stage with this – human rights, ecology, public action. And sometimes I just need to touch the ground and have that help me remember – here I am, at home anywhere I go on the earth, grounded.

In the scriptures, though, to be made out of dust isn’t just to be connected through our shared mortality, though, it’s also to be connected to the fondness God feels for us, and that we can share with one another.

In the Bible’s songbook, we get this:

Psalm 103:13-18 (NRSV)

As a father has compassion for his children,
    so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
    he remembers that we are dust.

15 As for mortals, their days are like grass;
    they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
    and its place knows it no more.
17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
    on those who fear him,
    and his righteousness to children’s children,
18 to those who keep his covenant
    and remember to do his commandments.


This is beautiful to me – that when God thinks about us, he remembers what we’re made from. And when he sees all this carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and whatever else we are – this elaborately made, living, breathing pile of dirt – God doesn’t pity us or resent us or anything. Our earthy mortality and limits stir God’s compassion.

Unlike ourselves, the God of the Universe is relaxed about our weakness, and understanding of our flaws, because God knows we are dust.

A friend of mine sent me an article on obesity recently, particularly the great shaming that those of us who are overweight so constantly endure – from our culture, from ourselves, and even from our physicians. One of the takeaways was to wonder what it would be like for our sanity and health if we just were to accept that we each have to do the best with the body that we have. To be kinder to ourselves, and to experience greater kindness and acceptance from others, would have a greater impact on our health and well-being than any well-meaning advice or criticism.

Whereas shame kills, compassion and kindness stir life.

When I am most disappointed in myself or someone else, this has become my new mantra. We are only dust. When I remember this, I’m nudged a little toward acceptance and compassion, and better things happen next.  

Reservoir had a retreat Friday afternoon and yesterday. 260 of us spent the front half of this weekend bundled up in a seaside hotel as yesterday’s Nor’easter barreled through the Cape. Our theme was drawn from a beautiful little book by the late priest Henri Nouwen.


Henri Nouwen lived a remarkable life. He was a prominent academic – writing books, giving lectures around the world, holding prized positions at both Yale and Harvard. But then a chance encounter led him to a small community of people with profound physical and mental disabilities and their caregivers. Nouwen moved into this community as their pastor, and lived there – giving and receiving compassion in community – for the last decade of his life.


And this book he wrote there is called Can You Drink the Cup? The cup in this book stands for three things. It’s an image of suffering, as it is sometimes in the scriptures. Life’s long, we all suffer – can we handle the sufferings of life?


It’s also an image of what the prophet Jeremiah and what Jesus call the new covenant. The new promise to all people to know God internally. So Nouwen asks if we can walk with Jesus into a life governed by faith, hope, and love. Can we live an existence, even in our sorrows, that is still filled with love, joy, and peace?


But the last thing Nouwen is talking about is a cup as a metaphor for our whole life. There’s a lot in these cups of ours. At the start of this past week, I stood on a stage in front of 1400 people to help lead our city’s people of faith in pushing for love, justice, and the health of our city. I stood before dozens of you who were there with me. I stood alongside prominent clergy in our city, before important political leaders and public officials. It was kind of a heady evening.

And then at the end of the week, driving my family en route to our retreat, I was rear-ended in traffic by a tone-deaf driver who smashed our car, messed up our week, and barely apologized. Grace, me, the kids, we’re all more or less OK, I think, a little shaken, not badly hurt.


But there’s a week in the life – the high highs, the low lows, the little smiles and pains and joys and indignities in between. Our lives hold so many sorrows and joys and delights and sufferings. There’s so much mundane and rich, empty and full, sometimes right on top of each other.


And it can be hard to hold these cups of our lives. To stay present to it all, without numbing out in distraction and busy-ness and whatever else we’re addicted to.


But our lives aren’t hard for God to look at. We’re not too sad, or too failing, too fat or poor or lonely or anything else. God knows that we are dust, and God has unending, all-knowing, all-encompassing compassion for us all.


On this point of compassion, I want say a word about criticism as well. Because over the past decade, being in a couple of leadership roles in two different institutions, I have learned that we can be a harsh and critical people, we humans.


When you’re leading an organization, you sometimes become the center of its criticism – both the internal frustrations people feel with you and with the organization, and the external complaints as well. It was way worse as a principal – someone rolled up to me every day – in my office, on my email, out and about the school hallways – with a choice word about what I or the school was doing wrong.


As a pastor, I get a lot less exposure to criticism, but when it comes, sometimes it’s more colorful. Semi-anonymous letters, full of Bible verses, from angry-sounding people I’ve never met.


So, I think I’ve learned a thing or two about how to give and receive criticism, if we really believe we are people made of dust, called to lives of compassion.


So I want to pause mid-sermon here, and mention just two or three thoughts about better ways to give and receive criticism.


We need to give criticism sometimes. We need to know which restaurants deserve our patronage, we have to hold people accountable to their jobs and their promises. We need people to know how they’ve let us down, so they can stop and so they can grow.


Good criticism, though, is appropriate, it’s true, and it seeks to build someone up, not tear down. Good criticism highlights actions that can change, it encourages rather than shames. It is compassion, it is still fundamentally for the other.


Criticism – when we give it to others or ourselves, and when we receive it, wherever it comes from, can’t tear down our core sacred, beloved selves.


Hear this scripture from the prophet Isaiah.


Isaiah 45:9-10 (NLT)

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator.
    Does a clay pot argue with its maker?
Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying,
    ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’
Does the pot exclaim,
    ‘How clumsy can you be?’
10 How terrible it would be if a newborn baby said to its father,
    ‘Why was I born?’
or if it said to its mother,
    ‘Why did you make me this way?’”


I love these lines.


A clay pot yelling at the potter, a newborn baby crying out to its parents – why did you make me? What have you done?


But when we take criticism too much to heart, or when we criticize ourselves, again and again rejecting our worth, we are practicing this crazy contempt of our maker, who made us good.


And so when we criticize somebody else, I think we’ve got to be careful as well to not do the same to them. If you can’t criticize with gentleness and compassion, don’t bother. If your criticism is laced with contempt, consider that your target is also made beautifully in the image of God, before you say or write a thing.


And when you’re criticized by someone else, sift out the true from the false, the useful from the not, and move on. This is hard to do, of course. As a pastor, I probably get 10 or 20 times as much thanks and appreciation and praise as I doi criticism.


And yet, the critical words still stick out. Even stuff from a stranger that sounds patently false and crazy can still cling to me. I remember it.


This is where the advice I got from a mentor years ago has been so useful to me. This guy was a very prominent and successful educator, and he spent time with me every couple of weeks when I was a first-year principal. And he told me that whenever I receive angry criticism, as I would a lot, I should remember that it wasn’t first about me, but that it was an opportunity to learn about the collective anxiety of the institution.


Criticism may speak truths about me I need to hear. In that case, I can take it like medicine – learn from it and move on. But often it said way more about the person doing the criticism. And I found my mentor was right. When I can see criticism as an opportunity to learn about the world of the critic, it doesn’t sting in the same way. It’s easier to hold even an unfair, angry critic with compassion.

So when teachers criticized me, it was an opportunity to relearn the stresses and frustrations endemic to the life of a teacher. When parents criticized me, it was an opportunity to gain insight into the particular anxieties of that community’s parents. And even when an angry, religious person criticizes me as a pastor, it’s an opportunity to learn about the religious dysfunction and anxieties of our age.


It’s important not to wall yourself off from criticism, especially if you’re a leader. Sometimes critics speak the truth you need to hear about yourself and your institution. So again, take a moment and ask if criticism holds some medicine you need to take. But then, take it and move on. And when the criticism says more about the critic’s anxiety than you, learn what there is to learn, but then break it off.


Literally – delete the email or throw out the letter. Treat the words like a curse, and pray a simple prayer of protection, even if it sounds a little old school or a little more other-worldly than you might normal be comfortable with. Like, I break off that curse in Jesus’ name. I don’t receive it or welcome it into my soul. And God, protect me. Give me strength to live humbly in your truth and in your compassion.


Before I end, I want to say one more thing about being made of dust. There’s connection, there’s compassion, there are better ways to give and receive criticism, but also, maybe counter-intuitively, there is hope.


One last scripture, from a letter by Paul of Tarsus in the mid-first century:


I Corinthians 15:42-49 (NRSV)

42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.


This passage challenges our imaginations of the future. It asserts what we know –  that all people, from the very beginning, have been mortal, from the dust. We live in these dying bodies of ours. But then Paul says there is more to come, that we have not seen. Our bodies are destined for greatness.


Like Jesus, a resurrected body is in our future, beyond the grave.


I find this challenging, and a space of regular doubt given we haven’t seen it yet, and because we know so much loss and death. We know what corpses and ashes look like. We know the biology and the physics of death.


And yet Paul insists that as history has seen with a risen Jesus, so the future will see with us. God knows the biology and the physics of new life and resurrected bodies.


In my work as a pastor with dead and dying, I have seen suffering and frailty and despair. But as much as I have seen these things, I have seen the miraculous and ethereal dignity and beauty of the human spirit. I have heard stories of unexpected amends made as people face death. I have listened to the bone-deep faith and assurance of the dying that this is not the end of them. I have seen transcendent peace on the faces of the suffering and emaciated. We sing a song here now and then where we say to our Maker, “You make beautiful things out of dust. You make beautiful things out of us.”

The dust from which we’re made has coalesced into bodies that somehow find room for beauty, aspiration, hope, joy, and love, even in the bleakest times and places. As we hear in Jurassic Park: Life finds a way.

From dust we come, to dust we will return. But what dust we are now. And as to what we are becoming – who’s to say it won’t be even more stunning than what we have yet seen and known?

Let me close, as I always do, with two invitations to faith and practice. The first is to:


A Tip for Whole Life Flourishing:

Consider a vow to be a person of whole-life compassion. In particular, only give criticism that includes compassion. And when you receive uncompassionate criticism, swallow anything good and true like medicine and spit out the rest.


I use this sacred, promising language of a vow, because I think this is a place of holy and important intention. As the sociologist Brene Brown teaches, empathy – to sit with someone else in their pain, to not judge or pity or ignore, but to say I feel with you, I’ve been there – is a skill. We can all learn and choose to do it. But a life of compassion, a regular practice of being with others in kindness, presence, connection, and hope – this is a spiritual practice. It takes faith that there is compassion for ourselves and for all of humanity in the universe. For me, that faith is grounded in the living God, known in the person of Jesus. And so a vow of compassion is a whole-life practice and promise. It doesn’t mean we’ll always have compassion for ourselves and others, but it says we always intend to. So I’ll give you a chance to make that vow if you like, in a minute.


And lastly, our spiritual practice of the week. One that I’ve found useful.


Spiritual Practice of the Week:

Touch the ground once a day. Consider this is where you came from and where you are going. Remember that your father/mother God loves the work of art you are and the one you will become.


Let’s pray.